I slipped into the passenger seat of a 2014 Lincoln and greeted my Lyft driver, an African American man about my age. During my brief stay in Atlanta, GA, I’d been inspired to learn about the Nobel Prize winner whose name and legacy is memorialized all over his home city. Today I was headed to the Martin Luther King National Historic Site where I would see his birth home, his church, and the granite tomb encasing his earthly remains. But I didn’t just want to understand the past, I wanted to understand the way it affects the present.
So I mentioned to my driver that I’d just been to the Civil Rights Museum the previous day and was very impressed with the simulation of a diner-sit in. I felt the violence as the headphones blasted threats in my ear and sound of a comrade getting beaten nearby… the chair even jolted as if someone was pushing me, filling my heart with fear. Tears rolled down my cheeks unannounced as I considered the strength it took for these ordinary heroes to endure such antagonism and violence without retaliation. I told him how I felt ashamed at the racist actions of my people, the white community.
At this moment, I thought we’d find a kind of solidarity at lamenting the past. I thought he’d be glad to hear a white person owning up to what we’d done. I thought perhaps it would allow us to celebrate the progress of the past generations and look hopefully on the future. The previous day both of my Lyft drivers had been African American and both had more-or-less this tone of response. But this time was different.
He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he thinks we shouldn’t use that word anymore—racism. If we stop saying it, then we can just forget and leave the past behind us. His little girl is 4 and doesn’t know the difference between herself and her little white friend… for her sake and for the sake of future generations, he just wanted us to let it all fade into history…
My heart stopped for a moment. If only it were that easy. Though I wanted to challenge this idea, I held back. His perspective was valid and I needed to listen. So I thanked him for sharing and sought to take it all in. I could see how much he wanted a different life for his daughter and how genuinely he believed erasing “racism” from our vocabulary was the solution.
I wish that dropping that ugly word from our vocabulary, scouring the internet of every mention, whiting it out of text books, and cutting it out from every penned letter would remove it’s sting from our society. But as much as it would be impossible to rid the world of such a heinous word, we are incapable of curing its disease from our hearts. But at least for the rest of this post, let me attempt to make no more mention of it and we’ll see if we can remove its affects also.
Now let’s pause for a moment and look a less volatile word I’d like to get rid of: adulting.
As I type it, Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize it and faults me for a misspelling with a red squiggly line. For a decade or more we’ve faced a generation with an extended adolescence… it’s as if we’re a bunch of Peter Pans and would prefer to stay in our dream world rather than face the harsh realities of life and grow up.
While it may not yet be acknowledged by Word or Webster’s, the ever-current Urban Dictionary has this entry for the word:
Adulting (v): to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as, a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.
Used in a sentence: Jane is adulting quite well today as she is on time for work promptly at 8am and appears well groomed.
(If you want to know more and put off your own adulting at work for about 5 min, perhaps you’d like to read the Times article exploring the word’s development. It’s really come into vogue this past year. The article is worth the read, and for what it’s worth, I side Madelyn Davies from Jezebel who says millennials use the word adutling to congratulate themselves for “fulfilling [their] basic responsibilities as a human.” Ridiculous. Let’s just grow up.)
Ok. Off the soap box.
Why did I take this rabbit trail? Breathe deeply and squint and perhaps you’ll see the connection. A good friend of mine likes to say, “Words create worlds,” echoing the Proverb, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:21). Certainly, this is true—our worlds hold power to curse and bless and we must choose them carefully. As a Communications BA, I’d also like to propose the theory that “Our world creates words.” What I mean is, how much do our actions and behaviors inspire new vocabulary? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
While I’d be perfectly fine wiping the word adulting off the face of the planet (and its implicative license to act immature), I can’t say the same for the other word on trial. This world still bears the echoes of America’s ugly past that to remove it from our vocabulary would only add insult to injury. Imagine trying to wipe out the world Holocaust in an effort to deny that 20 million people died in Nazi death camps. It would be like denying that they ever existed. It would be insulting to the relatives who survived.
I think again of my driver’s 4 year old girl. She lives in the ignorant bliss of a child who doesn’t see people for their color but for their person. To her there are no divisions, no reason why her best friend can’t be white. And she’s right! Oh if we could all see the way she sees.
But what happens when that girl is 14 and walks by some white jocks at school who cat call her and spout derogatory names while the coach stands by and turns a deaf ear? What happens when she later sees them getting told off for the same kind of behavior toward a while female?
What happens when she’s 18 and shows up nervously in a company lobby for her first job interview only to be told by the secretary that she’ll be “called back” about her application, and that they just wanted to “put a face to the name”? What happens when she never gets a call back?
And what happens years later when she’s looking to buy a house and the real estate agent never responds to her emails and she later realizes that all his properties have been sold to white buyers?
She might have been spared the use of that ugly word her whole life, but she wasn’t spared the experience of it. The path she walks has obstacles that no white woman her age would encounter. She’s bumping into the invisible walls of systems that work against her and for the benefit of others.
Will erasing the word transform the world’s systems? Will its disuse remove the sting?
Let’s reclaim it once more and own its realities. Could it be that a label like racism gives value to an experience? While slavery brought shackles could our words unlock them? Could the disunity of black and white be unified by owning up to a shared history? What if racism was “our” diseased past that we worked to heal together?
Let our words give value to what exists now and will one day be a distant memory.