Examining the power of words to penetrate, settle in and forever effect how you see yourself – and others.
As a child, I would tell people that I wanted to write novels when I grew up, which was like saying I wanted to be a rock star or a professional athlete. The odds were mighty that I’d never reach that dream – few do. So, when it came time for me to go to college, I felt forced into middle-class practicality. I declared a major in journalism.
Journalism? I had never read newspapers. I used to cringe every night when my dad shushed us at the dinner table so that he could hear the evening news. I wasn’t a news junkie. All I knew was that journalism was about writing stories, and that’s what I wanted to do. It’s no surprise that from the moment I stepped onto the University of Maryland campus in the 1970s, I was on shaky ground.
It was the first time I’d paddled alone in such a vast sea of whiteness. And it wasn’t long before I realized that journalism was not about writing “stories” – it was about facts, not imagination. I struggled to find my footing. My self-esteem took a beating. Then I took news writing with a professor who was strict and exacting.
He slashed my stories until they bled red ink. I told him I was willing to do as many extra assignments as necessary to get over the hurdle. He looked at me dispassionately and said, “You don’t belong here.” That would have killed me if it weren’t for the next thing he said: “You’re illiterate.” I nearly laughed out loud.
He could have called me anything in that moment, and I was down so low, I would have believed him. But the last thing he should have called me was “illiterate.” Words were my life and my passion. It was such a ridiculous thing for him to say that it made me realize he was simply against me succeeding. It was about him, not about me.
I put on my big girl pants and worked that man to death with my extra credit, turning in story after story, finding my voice as a journalist. I got a B out of the class. Decades later, I’m an accomplished journalist. The rest is history. Except it isn’t. Sometimes I still hear his voice when I’m struggling with my writing.
He planted a lifelong seed in my head that I wasn’t good enough. I still have to do regular weeding in order to silence that voice in my brain. We forget how profound powerful words are in a world where people are constantly being told they are less than based solely upon the way they look, their gender, their physical abilities, their wealth or who they love. We are constantly receiving disparaging messages – some subtle, some overt – that are effective in putting us in our place and keeping us there.
If you don’t believe it, go back to the experiment that elementary school teacher Jane Elliott did in the days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Elliott lived in an all-white Iowa town and knew that her students could never understand the soul-crushing power of racism over the psyche.
So, she divided her third graders by eye color and started complimenting one group and criticizing the other: Blue eyes are lazy. Blue eyes don’t follow directions. Blue eyes are slower. “I watched my students become what I told them they were,” Elliott told the media in 2017. Now 86, she has continued to do this experiment worldwide to teach about racism.
“I watched little wonderful brown-eyed white people become vicious, ugly, nasty, discriminating, domineering people in the space of 15 minutes. I watched brilliant little blue-eyed, white, Christian children become timid and frightened, and angry and unable to learn.”
In a second, she had created a privileged class through words alone. When people criticized Elliott for experimenting on “poor little children,” – many of whom say that the experience had a powerful, positive impact on them for the rest of their lives – Elliott is quick to respond.
“This was done for one day to help them get through life in a better way,” she told a Florida public radio station in February. “If you are upset by them going through this for one day, you must be absolutely furious at what children of color, particularly blacks, have to go through in this country on an hour-by-hour basis.” Words have the power to crush or elevate, affirm or erase. Be careful what you say to others. And most importantly, be careful how you listen.