As I’ve worked to dismantle my own internalized racism and the ways that I privilege whiteness, I’ve learned to resist being ‘othered’ through the use of language. So when someone says, ‘Oh, they did that to you because you’re black,’ I quickly correct them with, ‘No, they did that because they are bigots.’ This often shocks people. I can see the panic in their eyes. Sometimes, their eyes dart about. If there are lot of people, they may get quiet.
Sometimes, someone will try to lessen the blow of my words with some clever deflection. I then come back with, ‘No. They are bigots.’ I name the problem. Trayvon and Michael’s blackness wasn’t the problem. The problem was the negative perceptions of that blackness and what spaces that blackness was ‘allowed’ to occupy. These perceptions are supported, funded, and reinforced by institutionalized racism. Matthew Shepard wasn’t murdered because he was gay. Sakia Gunn wasn’t murdered because she was a lesbian. Matthew and Sakia were murdered by people who made a choice to exercise their bigotry within a culture that deemed Matthew and Sakia ‘others.’
How one uses language can be so constructive for their (hopefully just) cause.
This is a good and sobering point that hadn’t occurred to me before. But it’s true, most people tend to summarize an incident of bigotry or aggression by saying what the victim did or is. The speaker may not intend to imply that the person had it coming (for one reason or another), but that is in fact what we’re implying when we focus an explanatory phrase on who or what the victim is.