Stop Using This Word
How a common term causes more damage to diversity than you might expect.
Small-town, rural Wisconsin didn’t provide me with the most culturally diverse experience that I awoke to when I began working for a city with a large Hispanic population. I noticed early on, however, that every budget-planning, city-designing, regulation-making meeting I attended consisted of only white, middle-aged men. This wasn’t anything new to me. I was quite used to it, in fact—but I had expected something different in a city that contained a large ethnic population.
I started asking around as to the reason for this lack of diversity, and was met with mostly excuses. Suddenly it became an impassioned project of mine, because I presumptuously thought that in my infinite wisdom I could single-handedly change a community with over 100 years of homogenous history. I was going to fight the good fight, rustle some feathers, throw my punches, destroy the barriers, bridge the gaps and bring change and inclusiveness to this community!
But one day while discussing my grandiose aspirations at a local coffee shop, all that changed.
I was explaining to friends that if a student doesn’t feel like they have a voice within a classroom setting, they probably won’t feel like they have a voice in local politics. Out of my mouth came: “Well if they don’t feel respected…then they…and they…”
Suddenly it hit me—despite all my good intentions, I was perpetuating the “otherness” of the local Hispanic population with my careless language. Through my words, I created a mentality of “us” and “them,” “we” versus “they.” I was furthering the idea that we need to help them. This patronizing attitude flowing from my speech was undermining the values of equality and diversity I strongly believe in.
The power of words can be staggering. There are books, college majors and careers completely dedicated to language, how it is used and what it affects. Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, poets and linguists all have different ideas about language, but one thing is certain—language can be potent.
The Bible describes the tongue as a fire, holding the power of death and life, and gives several warnings about being mindful of what we say (check out James 3, Proverbs 18:21, Matthew 12:36-37 and Ephesians 4:29).
While “they” may seem like a perfectly innocent word, its usage immediately creates separation by categorizing people and claiming sides. If we’re not mindful of our speech, it can easily perpetuate an unconscious generalized grouping. By using “they,” the Church puts people into boxes—boxes that are often fueled by ignorance and can hinder work toward racial reconciliation, solidarity and purposeful living. We are thus unintentionally being exclusive and showing partiality.
James 2 covers this exact topic. At that time in church history, early Christians were showing partiality by paying attention to the wealthy while ignoring the impoverished. James calls them out and bluntly in James 2:9, “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” God’s love isn’t affected by social status, and ours shouldn’t be either.
This same lesson is taught to Peter in the book of Acts. God uses a vision in Acts 10 to reveal to Peter that it’s time for him to stop being partial and biased against the Gentiles, that the Gospel is meant for all nations and all people. After this realization, Peter gives a sermon to a household of Gentiles, saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).
Now, there is no denying that from person to person there are differences. We are not some big homogeneous blob, and I am not supporting the idea of color-blindness or the melting-pot philosophy. I believe we are much more like a mosaic—individual and unique pieces that when put together create a beautiful masterpiece.
But while celebrating our differences, we must all remember one very important similarity that binds us: We are all created in the image of God. While there are many differences between people, this one factual similarity alone should be strong enough to conquer our partiality. This one truth binds all people together with the most powerful “we” mentality.
We’re not going to instantly forget all prejudices, biases, stigmas and societal attitudes simply because we know and believe we are all impartially loved by God. But we can begin the change, we can start turning the wheels of progression. It begins with being conscious of what we are thinking and saying. When we see a person, what are the first thoughts we have? Where did those thoughts come from? What do those thoughts imply? We need to be conscious of the words we are using and what we are saying. Why do we use certain words when referring to certain people? What are the implications of those words to us? To people around us?
Start by focusing on how you’re using the word “they.” Try to go through an entire day paying special attention to how many times and in what contexts you use it. Ask yourself if you are putting people into boxes, categorizing them based on their social status, ethnicity or race. Are you perpetuating partiality simply by what words you are using? It won’t be easy and it won’t change the world overnight, but it will change you and me and help us be more mindful of our words. Let’s join together under God’s love for all people and stop using terms that encourage partiality. Let’s support each other in striving to love others as Christ has loved us.