Thursday, December 29, 2011

When Are Words "Just Words?"

Are words ever “just words?” This idea has perplexed me for a while. On one hand, I believe that words are extremely powerful and should be used appropriately to avoid hurting others, but on the other hand I have this urge to believe that words have no actual meaning, given the fact that society determines what a word means. So, which is it, or is it both? And what does this mean?

I was having a conversation with a Hispanic friend about a local store here called Food City. I had never been to this store before, and so I had no idea that the store was Hispanic based. A lot of their signs are in both English and Spanish, and they have a lot of great items there that I hadn’t expected to find. It was a general surprise. So, there I was discussing going to Food City with my Hispanic friend, and he made the comment “Really? Kinda beanerish.” I was taken aback and informed him that I thought the use of the word “beaner” was offensive. I asked him not to use to it, and the rest of our conversation went like this (edited a little bit for clarity and professionalism):

Friend: “You are Caucasian, you taking offense to a derogatory Hispanic slang term is kinda like me getting pissed off at a Midol commercial for claiming that it fixes your personality defects.”

Me: “I don’t have to be Hispanic to be offended. I am not African-American, but the word ‘nigger’ is offensive to me.”

Friend: “But it doesn’t apply to you. How am I supposed to understand…the plight of women without ever being one? It just doesn’t apply.”

Me: “It’s called empathy.”

Friend: “I'm not saying you can't [care]. I'm just saying that it is absurd. It's the intent behind something that is more important, anything less just counts as censorship to me.”

Me: “I disagree. Language is rooted in perceptions and impressions.”

After that, we realized neither of us was giving in and we moved on to a new topic. But the concept stayed with me, and it was discussed in some of my graduate courses briefly during that period. Now I’m trying to work it all out for myself.

When I first had this conversation with my friend, I was infuriated with him. As a feminist I try to stand up for marginalized groups every day, and most everyday activism, for me, comes down to language. When I hear someone say “that’s gay” or use offensive words or phrases to perpetuate stereotypes for any group, I speak up about it. I honestly believe that given the negative connotations of these words, it is detrimental to the groups for these words to be allowed use.

The idea that “words are just words” is not lost on me, though. I have seen countless examples of people using words to “take them back” and in the process makes the words lose their meaning. The word “witch” has a historical background as really offensive (being called a witch usually ended in death), but now a good portion of society uses the word freely with no real negative distinction or definition. I guess where my problem lies is that some people are still offended by that word, even though it has been appropriated.

I come to a place where I feel like maybe words are both meaningless and extremely powerful at the same time, just based on context. For instance, I wouldn’t be upset if a close friend of mine called me a bitch as a joke or to put me in place when I did something that warranted the comment, but I would be very offended if someone I wasn’t familiar with called me a bitch for any reason.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think that words have power when given power. For my Hispanic friend, he didn’t think that the word “beaner” was offensive for me because in his mind he couldn’t see why I would give it power without past experiences dealing with it, and for me, I couldn’t see how he could dismiss the word as not offensive for me when it has historically been used as a derogatory word. So, it all comes down to perception. Words are “just words” that when used in the right context can be helpful or hurtful.

What do you all think about that? Do you think that asking for offensive words to not be used is a form of censorship or a way to work toward ending prejudice? Was my reaction warranted even though I’m not Hispanic? Sound off in the comments!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Reason We Are Afraid at Night

Hello blog world. I know we barely know each other at this point, but I’d like to talk to you about something that I’ve been thinking about.

All of my roommates left town to do various things in other places, and I was left to run the house. The only living things nearby were my cat, my guinea pigs, my roommate’s suckerfish, and my dying tulips. With all this quiet my mind started to race. I began to create elaborate nightmarish scenes in my head. Every creak was someone tip-toeing through the dark; every bang was someone breaking in. Paranoia may have got the best of me, but I seem to find that this happens in basically any situation where I am alone and in the dark. I know this is not unique to me, either. Many of my female friends have noted the same responses. So, I’d like to talk about what I think this means for me as a female and what it means for us as a whole.

Is the fact that I’m afraid to be alone at night something that is just a part of who I am, or has this fear been instilled in me by society?

One side of the discussion says that, yes, it is just a result of who I am. I am a small girl; there’s no denying that. You see me, and your first thought is this girl couldn’t withstand even a mild gust of wind, let alone any sort of attack or physical situation that she may get herself into. So, it is possible that a lot of my fear stems from this obvious size situation. I am fearful because I can’t face what might be out there.

But then there’s the other side of the discussion that says a large portion of my fear is a result of society telling me that it is not only acceptable, but it’s expected for females to be fearful for their lives. This can be seen in the discourse around rape. When public organizations and groups, like universities, try to be more conscious about the outstanding rape statistics, they often implement programs to protect females from would-be attackers at night when they are alone. The types of programs implemented on my own undergraduate campus included escorts and the “blue light system.” Both of these are great buffers to the rape prevention discussion, but they fail to enact any true change in numbers. When looking at the statistics, 43% of attacks occur between 6 pm and midnight, but roughly 80-86% of all sexual assaults/rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows. Both measures, the escorts and the blue lights, are trying to prevent stranger rapes, but seeing as females are far more likely to be raped by someone they are acquainted with, both measures are missing their mark in the bigger picture.

I don’t want you to think I am trying to discount primary prevention of rape through these types of programs. Many females feel safer knowing that they have access to the police with just one button at the blue lights, and they also feel safer knowing they have police escorts to walk them home. That is great; feeling safe is an essential part of living. But this rhetoric about making females feel safer is in itself eliciting fear. To feel safer, we must first feel unsafe. As a whole, society tells females that we are constantly at risk of becoming victims. If this weren’t true, females wouldn’t be afraid to go out after dark alone and wouldn’t carry pepper spray to evade would-be attackers. Don’t get me wrong, not all females are afraid and a lot of females are fully capable of handling themselves in a sticky situation, but that’s exactly why we must fight this fear campaign that is being thrust on us. It is unreasonable for females to accept that we just should be afraid because we are females.

The best way to prevent sexual assaults/rapes is to educate people. By spreading information that is at most only partly true, the facts are being missed. As a society, we can’t target females and tell them they need to protect themselves from rapists. We need to be educating all people about the statistics (like 1 in 4 college aged females will be raped; 52% of rapists are white) so we can dispel the myths about rape. We also need to be focusing more of our efforts on preventing males from becoming rapists, rather than preventing females from being raped. There are some programs started, like Men Can Stop Rape, that are working exclusively on this.

As a female, I don’t want to go to a party and be afraid to drink because I’m not sure if that cute guy standing in the corner flirting with me is going to hold me down in the middle of the night and rape me since he thinks my lack of a “no” is essentially a “yes,” even though I am intoxicated and can’t give consent. I don’t want to be afraid at all; hence one of my resolutions this year is “no fear.” This seemed easy when I forced myself to apply to positions that I would have never applied to before, and it seemed easy when I made conversations with strangers in public places. It isn’t so easy, though, when combating society’s insistent need to tell me to be afraid of being a female.

I find myself afraid when I’m in the dark alone, but every time I feel that fear, I make sure I acknowledge what that fear stems from. In understanding why I feel the way I do I can begin to move to a happier and fearless life where I can walk wherever I want whenever I want. I can also begin to alert other females to this fear campaign against us and teach men how to be proactive in not making us fearful in the first place.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this in the comments. Also, most of the links are location specific, but a simple Google search can tell you more about your specific campus, state, country, etc.