That old adage of the pen being mightier than the sword is so often forgotten when we actually speak.
The notion of thinking before you blurt a word out into the world has been jarringly illustrated by the likes of Penny Sparrow and Matthew Theunissen, but I’m not here to rant about online stupidities.
He is not a boy
Instead, I’m here to get angry about certain white people’s refusal to change their thought and speech - and I think you are probably angry too.
The terminology used to refer to people that’s still sticking around far beyond the days where we had segregated beaches is pissing me off.
And I’m not just talking about disgusting words like the one that begins with a K, I’m talking about milder, but just as far-reaching terminology.
I see it in the instances where a 45-year old landscaper or gardener is called a “garden boy”. I see it in the way that a grandmother who washes dishes in the office and caters for meetings is called a “tea girl”.
She is not a girl
Calling people out on it is difficult, because if the person who is referred to through an insulting term takes objection to being referred to in an infantilised way, they might land up jeopardizing their job. It’s fear that keeps these terms around and that’s not okay.
Languages frames our world
Ferreting out this insulting language has to happen. When I call people out on this, I get told a bunch of excuses, from “it’s a habit” to “it’s the way things have always been done” to “she doesn’t mind”.
But that’s the thing that most people don’t take notice of, or choose to ignore: the way we speak frames the way we see the world. The words you use in your everyday conversation are the ones that shape your entire world, and then seep into your interpersonal relationships and your everyday interactions.
To NOT call people out when they use insulting terms (yes, they are insulting – would anyone call a CEO a boy? No, they would not) is also wrong, but I absolutely understand why someone would feel forced to accept it when their job could be in jeopardy if they were to.
It’s not just a habit
The excuse of “it’s just a habit” is really poor. It’s so poor I don't even want to give it any attention, but I have to because it’s the most common one that’s rolled right out when people get called out for infantilising someone they happen to employ.
Language is a learnt skill, and one that parents pass on to their children. That’s why you’ll find enthusiastic parents being careful not to utter the F-word around their toddlers. In the same way, can we not eradicate these insulting terms from our national language?
Can we stop accepting them as terms for actual, real-life human beings, and view it as a method for eradicating the insidious nature of racism? Because that’s what this is – racism – it is just (still and sadly) ever-so-blithely accepted as part and parcel of everyday language.
But if we know anything about language, we know it can change the world.