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Calling All Wetbacks

August 2, 2010

By Kohleun S. Adamson

The fact that I typed “Wetbacks” into this document and the automatic spellchecker did not flare up like a nasty case of herpes disturbs me, and sadly reinforces the thoughts I am about to share.

In grade school, I was the poster child for “uncool.” I was home educated for the entirety of second through eleventh grade, but that wasn’t the true source of my perceived lack of awesome. I wore glasses with huge plastic frames to correct a discrepancy in my eyes’ strength, which meant I also wore a patch covering my left eye for several weeks at a time. On my left leg I wore a calf-high brace for several years to stretch a tight heel cord. And to top it all off, I was one of few adopted children in our community, and when we moved to Arizona when I was eight, I was the only Asian kid in a sea of everyone else. The only thing I supposedly had going for me in elementary school was great math skills. You can guess what all that added up to. I got my share of name-calling, the most common was the weekly, “Freak!” shouted out by a troubled kid named Kirk as he sat on the swings at church and tugged at the corners of his eyes. I ignored him, or laughed it off. But eight year-olds should not have to laugh that off; no one should. As I’ve grown older, and my peers along with me, people don’t call me a freak anymore, which is nice. I am, however, labeled Chinese, Japanese, Filipina, or assumed to be unable to speak English on a regular basis, more often than people recognize my Korean heritage and English prowess.

We adults know better than to call names, right? Our parents, teachers, and life experiences tell us that name-calling hurts people’s feelings, and who would do that knowingly? Well, what if I told you the problem runs deeper than solely calling people derogatory names to assuming they fall into certain pre-conceived categories and labeling them, or simply speaking of others (and ourselves) without thought or care about what our words imply? That can be damaging, too, even leading to violence and systemic discrimination. And who would knowingly want to do that?

Here in Arizona, Senate Bill 1070 is an especially hot topic, the passing of which seems to make many people think they can open the flood gates and release all they’ve been dying to say about immigration—regardless of how harsh that may be or the stance they take on the issue. I have been pulled into several conversations of late about “illegals sneaking in and messing it all up,” or “Of course the car jacker’s name was Martinez,” or “What a Hitler” (it’s strange how two politicians who take opposite stands on an issue can both be called “Hitler,” but I digress). My first intuition is to run away. Do I want to argue politics? Does a fish need a bicycle? But it’s hard to walk away from the name-calling and overgeneralizations, and the obvious degradation which these imply. Language is powerful. Philosopher Nancy J. Hirschmann suggests, “Language sets the conceptual parameters not only of what we think or know (or think we know) but what it is possible to know. For without words, we could not have ideas: not only could we not communicate them with others but we would be hard pressed to articulate them to ourselves . . .” (Hirschmann 2003). If this is true, then how we talk about people matters, perhaps more than we ever considered.

We give a certain weight to words. We interact with language from the perspectives of personal history, cultural background, our social context, and religious beliefs. The language(s) we use in thinking and communicating with others about the world around us expresses these vantage points. It is very easy to turn on the linguistic cruise control and slip into the speaking and thinking of our contexts. This is why it is vitally important to pay attention to the language that permeates our thoughts, especially of other persons. A common example of harmful language I encounter often is calling those who are in the country illegally simply “illegals.” This is grammatically incorrect, obviously, but it also communicates something significantly demeaning: it says, “this [person] can be simplified to one’s citizenship status.” Perhaps this is not the intent of those who call other human beings “illegals”; maybe they are just being careless, sloppy. But think about it; that’s part of the problem. People are worth our thoughtfulness, and that terminology excludes the human aspect of the persons of whom we speak. We identify them as modifiers, as one descriptive word, rather than as subjects, persons with a past, with human dignity, with the Light of God deep within them.

So, how can we use our words, our conversations, and our unspoken thoughts with kindness, peace, and hospitality when we’re surrounded by the ease and potential to stereotype and mis-name those who may be different from us? Two of my favorite philosophers, Luce Irigaray and Nancy J. Hirschmann, see the power of language and discourse as a call for action, the subversion of injustice, and inclusive re-conceptions of humanity. At the core of their wisdom lie persistent critical thinking and making room for otherwise marginalized voices to take part in the conversations that influence our cultures.

Irigaray, a philosopher and linguist, writes in This Sex Which Is Not One, that, rather than simply trying to translate predominate discourses word-by-word so that we can understand “where they’re coming from” and make their terms palatable, we must carefully examine the structures of our speech, its metaphorical networks, and “what it does not articulate at the level of utterance: its silences” (Irigaray 1985). We ought to ask ourselves, what is silenced when we name people without concern for how they identify themselves, or the way God identifies them? What and who do we exclude when we include labels like “illegal” or “wetback”? Whose stories go unheard because we don’t think to ask?

In The Subject of Liberty, Hirschamann also suggests that at the center of seeking inclusion and breaking down stereotypes we find discourse: language in conversation. The Subject of Liberty deals specifically with issues of gender and marginalization in general. Its purpose is to discern an approach to freedom that does not simply swing power pendulums or victimize people inappropriately. In the conclusion Hirschmann proposes a seemingly simple solution: “Changing contexts and increasing freedom for women and nondominant groups requires increasing their ability to participate in the process of social construction (2003).” Earlier in the text, Hirschmann explains how discourse is a significant layer in socially constructing our concepts of humanity, the other, and the self.

I know this is all rather “heady,” but when it comes down to application, what these philosophers and I are suggesting is this: instead of labeling people—on the basis of immigration status, gender, race, age, ect.—listen to them. Let them tell and show us who they are, how they wish to be named. Explore with others the vast possibilities and abilities we as humans have been given. Take the time to understand the hardships and triumphs of others. Even if we don’t agree with their conclusions, we can value our neighbors as fellow reflections of God’s glory. Be dogged, my friends. Challenge the boundaries of silence and speech. Let us make space in the conversation for others.

Hello, I am a student, a sister, a daughter, a world traveler, and a lover of poetry and detective shows. My name is Kohleun. What’s yours?

Kohleun graduated from George Fox University in 2009 with a degree in philosophy and gender studies. She’s spent the past year at home in Arizona, working as a florist, baking delicious goodies, reading, writing, and researching gender identity formation in literature and popular media. This autumn, Kohleun plans to pursue a masters degree in gender theory and literature in the U.K., and she really does like watching detective shows on television, as well as having dance parties with her young nieces.

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