We’ve all heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names may never harm me.” Yet most of us have experienced the power of language to harm us.
For one of my prison classes, I instructed the incarcerated students to write a personal essay of two to three typewritten or 3-4 handwritten pages recalling an incident where they were either the target of hurtful language or were the instigator.
I told them to make certain that in they discuss the following:
- the incident itself, including the participants, history, and the language involved
- personal, social, historical, and cultural reasons why the language was so hurtful
- the consequences of the use of that language
- current reflections on the significance of the incident
We arranged ourselves into a big misshapen circle, and each student was asked to speak about what he wrote about, although they did have the opportunity to pass, and two or three did. One by one, the students described a time, sometimes from early childhood, sometimes from the time they have spend in prison, when words created hurt. Several students described the first time they heard the n word; others from the opposite side of the circle confessed to when they first used it. Ross talked about hearing the word “whiteboy.” As he described his early childhood in a foster home, we could see his classmates soften toward him. Victim stories and perpetrator stories were about evenly split. We also got several incarceration stories-the incident that landed them in prison or the incident that foreshadowed the incident that landed them in prison.
The class felt like a group meeting. There were tears, and there was laugher. Two students discovered they had both used the same title “Why Me?” and chuckled about it. Everyone listened to each other’s stories with an earnestness and an empathy that they don’t always demonstrate for their opposing political and intellectual positions.
Several students took us up on our invitation to experiment with non-traditional forms. Ezekiel wrote a short story; Terrell wrote a poem. The pain, hurt, and anger rose from nearly every page like storm clouds. Many expressed contrition, shame and embarrassment. Two asked that we didn’t share their work in any way because what they wrote was simply too painful. “It’s for your eyes only, as my teachers,” one wrote.
Others were eager to share their stories. They want people to know they have been hurt. They want people to know that they have changed. They want people to know that they are sorry for the hurt they have caused. They want people to know that they have learned that language is power and they learned that the hard way.
Jason wrote about the day he learned his mother died. Check out his note of apology at the bottom of the page-he wasn’t sure his essay fit the assignment.
Looking back on it now, those words impacted my life more than any others because of the turn-for-the-worst that my life would take after that day. After that day I just continued to spiral downward until I reached prison. Without my mom to guide me, I was on my own. I ended up having to live with my dad, and he continued to not be around much. Ever since that day I’ve basically been just lost trying to find my way on my own.
A lot of the mistakes that I’ve made can be attributed to not having the guidance and structure that my mom would have provided. I know that had she not died, I would not be in prison right now, and I definitely wouldn’t be heavily tattooed. That sentence or two affected my life deeper than someone calling me cracker or honky ever could. The words that were used to tell me that my mom had died were a lot more than just words. Those words were a turning point towards the rest of my life.
Jason’s additional handwritten note of apology:
I wrote about a situation that hurt me the most with words. If you’d like me to re-write the paper about a situation involving insult, just let me know. I’ll be happy to do it.
Joe mourns the loss of a relationship, swearing he has changed:
The pain that has resulted from these words still echoes through me to this day. The effect of severing communications – which these words represent – has created a chasm between us that I can find no way to circumnavigate, and trust me I have tried. I have spent sleepless nights pondering why such an obstacle even exists, and I have come to realize that the true travesty in this situation is that the man that she was angry with, does no longer exist – for the fact is I have changed, but sadly, now she has no way of knowing this. If we cannot communicate, I have no way of conveying or proving that today I am not the same man I was yesterday. And every morning when I awake, I say a prayer that one day she will allow me to speak with her and with my children once again.
Jon remembers the racial slurs on the playground of his St. Paul youth
We Could Have Been Friends
Have you ever seen an Asian man as a main character in a movie in which he wasn’t portrayed as knowing martial arts, being a homosexual, or a perverted nerd? Ever since I was born these media stereotypes of Asian males are all that I’ve seen and heard in mainstream America. From today’s Jacky Chan to the days of Charlie Chan this skewed image has been reinforced over and over again. At times they didn’t even let an Asian man play an Asian man in the movies. So it is no surprise that growing up I was always bombarded with the question, “Do you know kung fu?” or “Do you know karate?” Along with that I’d also get a Bruce Lee esq “Whaaw!” and a karate chop in the air. The most offending things to ever happen to me didn’t come from a movie or a question. This incident happened to me on the joyful and sometimes cruel playground of my neighborhood.
And Brian eloquently recounts a harsh interaction with his stepmother over his grades, claiming that at that moment, he began to spiral into the person who would land in prison… for life:
…I felt the stings there on my bed, and I continued to feel those lashes for a long time after the eruption. My state of mind had to be rebuilt, and a new cornerstone had to be carved out of a new ideology. What once was, was no more. It was difficult to decipher that all of this devastation took place over a couple of letters on a piece of paper that didn’t constitute how hard I strived to do my best, and not just academically.
As I look back on this important piece of my childhood, I realize how vulnerable I was to all types of attacks, and part of it may have to do with that ambient innocence of a child. Even now I am vulnerable to verbal attacks because I take everything directed at me to heart; as I’ve stated before, I wear my heart on my sleeve, unarmored, and statements weigh heavily on my mind thoroughly before discarded. Because of what was said that day, the gap between my step-mother and me grew into a canyon, and any unkind words that were said from then on had to float across that chasm and came to me only as echoes. It’s a feeling that I never want to feel again and I never want to make another person, especially one that I care dearly for, have to experience that agony. I realize the importance of the way we talk to each other and communicate with one another, and how damaging taboo language and hate speech can be. The consequences go far beyond that of physical injury; the harm can be irreparable and one’s psyche and emotional wellbeing can experience severe affliction. The wound may scab over, but a ghost of that wound could always haunt the heart and mind. I don’t think talk is cheap; on the contrary, it comes at a very high price.
Those wounds do continue to haunt, but perhaps writing and talking about them provides an opportunity for both reflection and healing.