Indeed, as I early as I can remember, they were sprinkled into mission statements, policies, or speeches from headmasters or politicians. Governments come and go, all pledging their allegiance to “diversity”, as though it is some sort of new, revolutionary word. Schools are told to teach the importance of “multiculturalism”. At university and in the workplace we are told how institutions and organisations are committed to “equality and diversity”. These words are all too familiar and comfortable to repeat, easy to fit into speeches and policy, and often seen as sufficient.
Words are powerful; language is the most important tool when it comes to social change. Words can be used to invoke much, or little, emotion. They can be used provocatively, or neutrally. Words can make us feel better, or make us feel worse. Words can ignite passion, and words can stoke apathy.
Words like “tolerance” and “equality” are palatable, almost pleasant. They are easy on the ear. They are inoffensive. The use of these words does not conjure up the realities of why they are so desperately needed. It does not convey the burning injustice of a person of colour being refused a job due to their race. It does not invoke the horror of an elderly Muslim man being stabbed to death walking to Mosque, or an elderly Jewish man being attacked on the street. It does not conjure up images of white supremacists bursting into a synagogue or a Mosque and opening fire on congregants. It does not conjure up images of unarmed black men being shot dead by white police officers.
In the mainstream, the language we use concerning racism is often passive and, when something becomes passive, it begins to lack all impact. Weak, box-ticking language does little to address the enormous issues these words purport to tackle. Passive language does not spark discomfort, anger, upset, or frustration - generally, it make us feel very little at all. It does not convey the pain and suffering that those subjected to a deficit of these words. In actuality, the use of language that invokes little or no emotion which, ultimately, serves to perpetuate the inertia on tackling racism.
If we want use language to aid the fight against racism, we must change the way we talk about race, and resist making it palatable. When we say we need more “tolerance” for ethnic minorities, what we should say is that we must stop white supremacists people killing ethnic minorities. When we say we need more ethnic ‘diversity’ in the workplace, we mean the white hierarchy need to stop refusing jobs to people of colour because they are not white. When we say we must promote ‘multiculturalism’ at schools, we mean the overwhelmingly white establishment need to protect ethnic minority children at schools from racial hatred and abuse from their peers. These realities may be uncomfortable hear when they are spelled out, but it should feel uncomfortable. It is not enough to drop equality and diversity into a sentence and expect it to create change. We need to use language that on some level conveys the suffering, pain and emotion turmoil of minorities. Soft soundbites and dogmatic repetition of phrases that have increasingly lost all weight and meaning do nothing.
More than ever, in a world where white supremacism and extreme right-wing populism continues to spiral out of control, the time for soft language is over. We must use more radical language. It must be jarring. It must shock us. It must move us. It must stir passion and action. It must make us stop, listen, and notice. Our words must be our weapons, and they must be sharp.