Cultural Competency: On Our Language

March 28, 2018

The words we use to distance ourselves from each other are just as important as the words we choose to relate with each other. Sometimes we praise someone by pointing out what makes them different from others like them. This can be as harmful as lumping them in with a group of faceless others. ChildSavers seeks to build a community of empowered and supported children, parents/guardians, families, child care providers, staff, and volunteers. The words we use to talk about each other make all the difference. In this blog, I discuss how language carries stereotypes and affects people, and how you can be aware of it to make changes.

Let’s Talk About Words

Myles Lewis, a Master of Arts graduate from Case Western University, wrote his thesis on the damage of the phrase, “You’re not like other __________.”

[When hearing “You’re not like other ________,”] [H]ow does one know that certain features of background knowledge are more relevant than other features? For example, when uttering “You’re not like other black people,” the speaker does not (usually) intend to say that the receiver isn’t dark skinned, they do not mean to say that the receiver is not able to grow facial hair; . . .  or that they are not like other black people because the receiver is taller than average.”

When someone says, “You’re not like other Black people,” it is implied that the person does not fit within the racist assumptions that the speaker has made about Black people.

I want to begin a dialogue around why we think it is helpful to tell someone “You’re not like other _________.” I want to help us recognize that when we try to compliment someone this way, we are indirectly saying that those other ____________ are not something to want to be like. For example, say a boy develops interest in a girl and tells her, “I like you because you’re not like most girls.” She may have actually heard him say: “It’s not good to be like most girls. Most girls are not likable and if you were like most girls, I would not like you.”

Let’s Talk About History

The way that we have learned to talk about ourselves and each other comes out of a systemic privileging of identities. This means that positive traits are associated with privileged identities. The opposite of those traits becomes associated with people of marginalized identities. In their article, Black students’ school success: Coping with the ‘burden of ‘acting white,’ Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu discuss this relationship between traits and identities.

The article studies why some Black students feel indifferent toward academic work and success. The authors wrote,

[t]his problem arose partly because white Americans traditionally refused to acknowledge that black Americans are capable of intellectual achievement, and partly because black Americans subsequently began to doubt their own intellectual ability, began to define academic success as white people’s prerogative, and began to discourage their peers, perhaps unconsciously, from emulating white people in academic striving, i.e., from ‘acting white.’

From this article, we begin to understand how centuries of biased societal teachings cause us to associate academic achievement with Whiteness. It is important to be aware of internalized beliefs in our society, culture, and language. These beliefs can create low self-worth or low self-confidence for many of the children ChildSavers serves.

By being more aware of our language, we can keep from reinforcing bias. If we are not aware, we may tell a child of color, for example, that they are only good because they have aligned themselves with Whiteness. Or we may imply that by having a positive trait, a child of color has distanced themselves from their racial or ethnic identity and others that share it.

Let’s Talk About Examples

“Compliments” that Enforce Stereotypes

“You can’t be just Black. Look at your beautiful hair! You’ve got to be mixed with something!”
“Wow, you speak so well. I never would have known you didn’t go to college.”

These statements may be intended as compliments, but are received as saying that to be beautiful or “well-spoken”, you must be set apart from other Black people or other people who did not go to college. This is rooted in oppressive stereotypes that assume people who are Black are not

beautiful, and people who don’t go to college are not good at communicating. This type of communication supports the idea that the marginalized group is inferior.

Using Empowerment, Not Judgement, to Appreciate Difference

We may use disempowering language when we take pride in things that make us unique. I’ve heard masculine queer folks use this tactic to say, “I’m not feminine like those other gay people.” I’ve heard Black folks use this tactic to say, “I’m not ghetto like those other Black people.” I’ve heard women use this tactic to say “I’m not emotional like those other women.”

Maybe the thing that you are proud of is your masculinity, your mannerisms, or your calm personality. However, when you express that pride by judging the “opposite” trait in other people like you, it can cause damage both to them and how you see yourself. This is not empowering language; rather it confirms and continues bias and stereotyping.

Surprised is Different than Impressed 

Consider how we use the word “actually” when we are surprised to find a trait in a person. I myself have been guilty of saying, “she actually speaks very fluent English.” Or, “she is actually really good at giving time and attention to her kids.” When I make these statements, I reinforce assumptions made about Spanish speakers or single mothers. The compliment is empty. It is rooted in a culture of looking down on folks with certain experiences.

The actually “compliment” comes at the expense of people who may not speak fluent English. Or folks who aren’t able to give the same time and attention to their children. What I am really saying is: “You don’t fit my assumptions about people who have similar experiences to you. I am surprised and pleased by that. If you were like those people, I would be annoyed.” By judging people this way, we make it hard for them to reach out for our support if they need it. They may be worried about being stereotyped, judged, or criticized.

Let’s Talk About Change

We can change this pattern of thinking and communicating. First, become aware of it. Notice it in yourself. Point it out for others. Try to keep track of your thoughts about a person and how you talk with them. Are you interacting with them based on assumptions and stereotypes? Are you surprised to find yourself admiring something about them because, based on their identity, society says people like them do not possess this trait?

Try to reframe your thoughts about the trait and the group of people. For example, strength in science can be found anywhere and is not more surprising in girls than in boys. Or, folks whose incomes are below the federal poverty level have varied experiences of the world. Some are jaded, some are joyful, and some are just fine. Try to keep your mind open to what the person is showing you about them. If you admire them, avoid adding qualifiers to your compliment. Embrace the possibility of lifting this person up without putting other people down.

By CasSandra Calin

CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.

CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.