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Published 05/06/2020 | Reading Time 5 min 58 sec
Op-Ed | By Katherine P. Mitchell, Contributing Writer
Have you ever felt invisible? Let me share some reasons why I feel ‘unseen’ in the United States of America.
Language and communication have always been near and dear to my heart. I know from experience that the English language is one of the most difficult to learn. As a vocal music major, I studied a few languages. Having taught hundreds of students in higher education, whose primary language was not English, I have felt the frustration of being misunderstood. I understand that words matter.
On two occasions this week, while listening to PBS News, reporters used the plural possessive pronoun “our” when referring to Black people and another marginalized group. The reporter spoke in terms of ‘taking better care of our African American community’, in regard to the ravages of COVID-19.Technically, one would use “our” when referring to the US President because he leads a nation of millions of people. He is our elected leader. However, at a campaign rally when he asked, “Where is my African American?”, he implied ownership (singular, possessive).
The problem with this implication is that for every Black person in America, it conjures up images of enslaved people – our ancestors. A perfectly good use of the plural possessive pronoun is, “Our first responders are wonderful people who understand the meaning of sacrifice.”
Black people have not been ‘owned’ or ‘possessed’ in the US since 1865. That was the year of ‘Juneteenth’, when the last enslaved Black people in Texas were informed of the Emancipation Act and their freedom.
We do not use personal pronouns when referring to groups of people unless, of course, it is intentional.
Journalists have a responsibility to use correct English. It is imperative. It is expected. It is an integral part of their profession.
Millions of viewers are influenced daily by what is heard through journalistic reporting, and then it is repeated and perpetuated all over the world. A global influence can surely change anything, including language, and that is why we need to get this right.
I notice words and language because that is how I’m wired. I notice, especially, when White people can be unconscious when speaking of groups other than their own. There is a general, implied “other”; a “minority” status is assigned to “people of color”. Where do these terms originate? I identify neither as a minority nor a POC.
Yes, we even have acronyms that everyone recognizes. There is no personal identity under this all-inclusive POC cover.
I am only these things when contrasted with another who is not “of color”. These injurious words are used constantly – every day – all day and night. I am truly weary of being an ‘other’.
Adding insult to injury, the words easily slide off the tongue and cause a false ‘possessive intimation’ to be more obvious — which I, personally, find offensive. Though I do not think these particular ‘aggressions’ are always personal, they make me feel uncomfortable.
Why do we dull the sharpness by slapping them with a size, like micro?
I think aggressions are akin to lies, whether big, little, or white – it is still a lie. It is actually the same discomfort I notice when people say they ‘don’t see color’. Honestly, if you don’t see color, then you don’t see me.
My copper-toned skin is my most obvious feature.
This is the thing. We all know our US American history of genocide and the enslavement of several different ethnic groups. As a Black American woman, or an American Black woman, or an African American woman, it is impossible to forget these atrocities.
I feel that my skin tone is the first factor that determines how I am approached, treated, included and respected by others. Assumptions are made before I ever speak.
Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that most groups use these terms, and I make it my business to educate often. I remind people not to refer to themselves or others as [ blank ], or accept the monikers created for us by others.
As you consider these things, try and remember a time when you heard statements such as ‘taking care of our Caucasian American citizens’ within ANY context – ever.
It is never spoken because it is the natural, assumed default. There are myriad examples that could be used to make this final point. But because you probably already thought of one when you read that statement, I will allow you to continue with your imagination. Just know that words do matter.