Words May Break My Bones, or the Harm of Racist Language

Earlier this month, at the institution where I teach, a black student on one of our sports teams was suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct in response to in-game taunting she received from an opposing player. That taunting, if we should even be calling it that since that language is significantly minimizing, consisted of a young white woman calling our student “n****r” and “monkey.” What’s maybe worse is that this was not the first time such a thing has happened to the student at my school. In an incident earlier in the season, she was called these names again; only this time, she didn’t just react verbally; the student at my school punched the other girl in her mouth.

Now, listen. As a pacifist, I never encourage violence, and I do not think punching someone in the mouth is an appropriate response to anything,…

…but…

The problem here is more complicated than when to hit or not hit. The problem is that acts of racist violence, because they are often invisible, are not treated in the same way hitting is. We don’t name that as a kind of violence, but it is. Physical violence we can see, or at least we know what to look for. We see the act of hitting. We see the consequence of the pain caused — someone falling to the ground, tears. We see the bruise left behind. But, when someone HITS with violent language or when the structures themselves cause harm and protect the behaviors that allow that violence to propagate, we often do not have the language to quantify that, to name that, or to estimate the damage that is done. It gets framed as a sort of petty assault — like stepping on someone’s foot or bumping into them in the halls. It is framed as inconvenient but not violent. Unfortunate, but not harmful. And that, friends, is the conversation I want to have. I want to talk about the violence of racism, especially the violence that we struggle to see.

This conversation about what counts as racist violence has bubbled up many times within the last week. When Duchess Meagan Markle made claims of racist treatment she received from the British Royal Family, the immediate response by many was something like, sure, ignoring her demands for mental health care was poor form, but was it really racist? That claim comes because so many have a narrow definition of what “racist” looks like. If someone is not yelling n-words at black people from the back of a pickup truck or donning a Klan hood while lynching a woman in a tree, some claim what we are discussing is not racism. The word has much ambiguity. Rather than understanding our definitions of racism as insufficient, many think the claims are overblown or make excuses about what else it could be besides racism. This ambiguity is the reason why someone like Sharon Osbourne can demand from cohosts of her show The Talk that someone prove to her that racism exists and boldly declare that no one, especially her black cohost Sheryl Underwood, gets to cry about it. Osbourne both denies the racism and the pain it might cause. Other examples abound that show how perpetrators of racist violence and their defenders are often allowed to adjudicate for themselves what parts of their behavior do and do not count as racist. The most recent example we saw with former president Donald Trump’s dangerous suggestion that Asian-descended people were somehow connected to the coronavirus spread. Few news outlets took seriously the claims of Asian communities about what harm that language was causing until an Atlanta-area man targeted three separate Asian spas and killed six women of Asian descent. Even then, police officials granted the murderer the benefit of the doubt and suggested that such targeted racial violence might actually be attributed to something else instead, like sex addiction or a “really bad day.”

Because I often turn to literary texts to help me find clarity in these conversations that feel too baffling for words, I am reminded here of the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen’s 1925 piece entitled “Incident.” In it, he writes:

“Once riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.”

This poem emphasizes the significant harm words and acts of racism can cause. Some might read this poem and find themselves coming to the defense of the offending child for what they might call an act of innocent ignorance; we instead are challenged to shift our gaze to the child who has been harmed. This child, the one who was once so excited about his summer trip, has his joy and innocence stripped away by this racist and violent act. The n-word does harm by occupying the boy’s thoughts, so much so that he has no memory of any good that came from that moment in his life. Racism — even just in the form of a word — transforms the consciousness of those who have been attacked by it. It distracts. It steals. It hurts.

As I think about that student at my school, I wonder what she and her teammates have been distracted from, what they had stolen from them, how they have been hurt. Rather than remembering college as a period of self-discovery, new friendships, and a sparked joy for learning, she will most remember this time for the “incident” she experienced. It will leave an indelible mark on this time in her life and rob her of the possibility of connecting this space and this time to anything but the trauma she experienced. Her ability to play the sport she loves was stripped away by sanctions related to her audacity to bear the anger of her assault “proudly and unbent.” It is worth noting, too, that those sanctions happened because those in power failed to adequately see the significance of the harm that had been done to her. Her ability to focus on learning in her classes, the primary purpose of her college enrollment now significantly impaired because of demands for her to retell and recount her experience to every administrator and news outlet that calls, to defend and justify her response to those who cannot quite tell if what happened to her really counts as racism.

We understand why someone who is punched in the mouth reacts as if they are injured, but since we don’t see verbal abuse as a strike on the body, any objection or response to it seems, to many, over-the-top, excessive, rather than appropriately proportional to the harm experienced. This reaction is the consequence of color-blindness. The pain experienced by people who are racially-othered is rendered invisible.

What would happen if it were not? This thinking reminds me of the “Jig-a-Bobo” episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, where the young girl Diana is scratched and torn to pieces by “picaninny” demons. She is literally left broken and bleeding both by the assault of the racist officer in the town who smears his possessed saliva on her face and by the manifestation of the racist tropes that persist in doing psychological harm to her. These demons are ones only Diana can see, so even those closest to her are unable to bear witness to what is attacking her, at least not until she is left comatose on the floor, succumbing to the overwhelming nature of the battery she experiences.

What would it take for non-people of color to see how black folx and so many other people of color hurt BEFORE they come to the point of breaking? What if every time black folx are assaulted, they “take the charge,” fall to the ground to make fully visible the hit and the harm? Perhaps then people could better understand how much damage is done and how much it hurts. If only each subtle cut, each macro- and micro-aggression bled proportionate to the harm that it caused, maybe then the injury would be obvious. Then, we collectively might do a better job of taking immediate action to mitigate further damage, hold others accountable for the harm, stop the bleeding instead of cutting more with our inaction, apathy, and disinterest.

I wonder if we could change how we respond to these moments. Rather than trying to quantify how much harm had been done or whether or not the thing that occurred really counts as racist, I wonder if our first step could be just to stop and acknowledge that someone has been hurt. I wonder if we could do what we would in any other situation where someone is in pain: offer our sympathy, offer comfort, offer our awareness, and make visible others’ pain. Just like kids whose caregivers kiss their boo-boos when they stub their toes or scrape their knees, we need to respond immediately with understanding and compassion. Even if we aren’t always able to fix the hurt, we do have the ability to soothe with our capacity to care. Obviously, this is not the only action that needs to take place. But, it indeed allows us to begin by centering the often marginalized experiences of those on the receiving end of this kind of violence but, at a most basic level, acknowledging it as such.

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