Thursday, March 5, 2020

Checking Ourselves for Oppressive Language

"Oppression? I would never use oppressive language!" If that's what you're thinking, please don't skip this post. The first time I was encouraged to attend "anti-oppression training" as part of an organization-wide effort to be more inclusive, I laughed uncomfortably because Oppression was such a strong word that I associated with slave-owning and wife-beating. Surely, I wasn't doing that! Because I'm a "good" person!...right?

Right off the bat, I'll make an admission. I've been the person oppressed by others AND I've been the oppressor. Because I'm a woman, I know what it's like to be "man-splained" and talked over in meetings. As someone of mixed-race heritage, people inevitably say offensive things to me. I can relate to what micro-aggressions feel like. But I'm rather white as well, so I don't go through nearly half of what many friends do on a daily basis. Because I have a level of economic privilege, I also must admit that I have been insensitive to the situation of others at times without even thinking about it.

But I'm working on it. And this post is part of that. 

In everyday life, there are many slights about race, gender identity, and economic status that can drive people crazy. So many that for the purposes of this post, I'm just going to focus in on a few common things that happen in the context of advocacy organizing...particularly, in anti-poverty advocacy. It's such a counter-productive thing to be expending so much energy to help people in poverty while unintentionally belittling your partners and/or the very people you are trying to help. Which brings me to the first thing to think about when talking about oppression:

Intent is NOT the same as impact
Just because we don't mean to hurt someone, doesn't mean that we're not being incredibly hurtful. Whether it's a bad joke, a slip about gender, an assumption about someone's income or anything else we didn't mean to do, it really doesn't let us off the hook if we weren't intentionally trying to hurt someone. If they hurt because of our insensitivity, it's our fault. We should apologize and try to do better. 

How are we hurting each other?

Here are a few of the most common insensitivities that I personally see happening in meetings throughout the many organizations I volunteer with.
  • People of greater economic means talking over people of lower economic status
  • Men talking over women in meetings
  • Advocates telling members of Congress that they are "a voice for the voiceless"
  • Global advocates using "savior" language demeaning those we try to help
What can we do instead?
When we hear Aaron Burr's character in Hamilton say, "Talk less, smile more," it's advice to Alexander Hamilton to avoid taking a moral stand publicly. But maybe we can use that phrasing differently in this context. When I am lobbying with a mom who lives in poverty herself or lives in a developing nation, my job is EXACTLY to "talk less, smile more." I need to allow her room to say whatever she is willing to say and give her a supportive smile to let her know that I'm her partner and I've got her back if she needs me. Men can follow the same advice when it seems like women are not getting equal space in the conversation. 

As for that savior mentality I mentioned, that can get pretty embarrassing, especially if you're a global advocate lobbying with a partner from a nation with high poverty level. I have had the immense honor of advocating with some awesome partners from Kenya, Mozambique, and other African countries. Some of them are survivors of HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, and they have overcome hardships I can only imagine because they tell me about them...with their VOICES! I absolutely cringe inside when I hear another activist use the "voice for the voiceless" phrase. Our partners have beautiful, strong voices. They have definite opinions and ideas. It's just that my colleagues live on the other side of the planet and can't hang out here with my U.S. representative in her little Ballwin, Missouri office. So, I have to do the talking on their behalf with full permission of the stories they asked me to share. 

Examples of stories I do NOT share are stories my local friends have told me in confidence about times of their lives when they lived in poverty themselves. Those were not happy times, and they sometimes made hard choices they are not proud about today. If they want me to tell them, I do. Better yet, if they can come with me and tell it themselves. But I don't share those tales-even with anonymity-unless I have clear permission to do so. 

But back to savior language...If you, like me, started out advocating in organizations where it was deemed okay to use that kind of phrasing, try out some of this alternative language and see how it shifts the conversation in a more positive direction:

Instead of....

  • I'm a voice for the voiceless. (Portrays people experiencing poverty as without agency)
  • Poor people (Casts those living in poverty as other, less than, and different than us)
  • We save poor people's lives. (Casts us as saviors and portrays others as incapable of saving themselves)


  • I speak in partnership for those who aren't here to speak for themselves today.
  • People living in poverty/living in the world's poorest places
  • As advocates, we use our voices in partnership with others to influence decisions that can bring an end to poverty. 
Questions to ask ourselves
There are so many more situations, and I'd love to hear more examples and solutions in the comment section! Regardless of the circumstance, however, I've found these questions to be immensely helpful. 
  • Am I portraying people experiencing poverty as empowered members of our movement?
  • Am I portraying myself as a partner in the movement to end poverty or as a savior?
  • Am I being cognizant of my own privilege in conversation and grounding conversations in the voices of those directly impacted by poverty?
  • Am I listening to other voices? Am I creating space for new leaders?
  • Am I using inclusive, empowering and welcoming language?
You are not a horrible person if you answered "no" to one or more of these...not if you think you can move forward with a commitment to improve. We are all on a spectrum of learning. I am a big believer in the phrase, "When you know better, do better." It works for parenting small children and it works for advocates! 

I'm far from perfect, but I'm trying and I hope you'll try along with me. I'm hoping that in this forum - reading this alone in privacy - my readers might take a moment to reflect carefully about these questions and work to make our movements more inclusive for all. Listen a bit more carefully when you're in a meeting with your fellow advocates. Maybe talk a little less. Let's see what we can learn from each other!