Saturday, April 03, 2010

Words about Words

This morning's "Google Alert" (I have one set up to let me know when someone has written about my blog) included a link to Scientist Gone Wordy, where Rachel (the blog owner) talked about the power of words. In her post this morning (April 2, 2010), she pointed readers to my site (hence the alert from Google Alerts).

As anyone that has heard me speak at a conference or invited lecture knows, I have uttered plenty of words that expose my own biases. Paying attention and recognizing the power in the words we use is an on-going process. I self-disclose my own ignorance and examples of offensive speech to demonstrate that I'm just like most people. There's a lot we don't know, and having it brought to our attention is unsettling and embarrassing.

I like to think of myself as being tuned in for bias in the media, but once I started reading NPR Check (now NPR Team), I realized I had not been applying my critical media skills to NPR!. I had assumed (incorrectly) that NPR was more on the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum.

Towards the end of her post, Rachel ended by talking about gender.  It reminded me of one of the findings in my doctoral dissertation. There, I examined illustrations of American Indians (actual American Indians, non-Native characters playing Indian, images on objects such as the Indian head penny) in children's books recommended in Young Children, the practitioners journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Whether it was an actual American Indian character, or a character playing Indian, or an image on an object, the majority of the images were male.

I'd need to do a study of the gender of the Native people in historical fiction in order to make a definitive statement, but thinking about classics like Little House on the Prairie or Matchlock Gun, most of the portrayals are of Native men...   


Rachel said...

Hi! Thanks very much for stopping by my blog to comment (and for linking to it). It's a relief to know I'm not the only one still tripping up with words. :) I suppose we all have to work hard to take care.

Thank you for all the great information and conversations you host here.

(Also, since your blog is very often about literature that is appropriate for children, I'd like to add that my blog often uses words that are not appropriate for children - just in case anyone scrolls through other posts.)

Gary said...

Thinking about the power of words and thinking about the juxtaposition of the spoken word with the written word I start wondering how one ever came up with the old falsehood that "words will never hurt me" since words are very powerful indeed.

JJYahn said...

I think the key to being truly progressive in both our personal and professional lives is to recognize our own bias. While it can be embarrassing, as an educator I realize admitting to my own bias enhances my teaching because I become more reflective and critical of my practices. It reminds me to ask myself am I advocating social justice, or am I only advocating justice in my areas of expertise and comfort (or things that are personally important to me)? Since I know I want to advocate social justice, when I note a flaw in my words, classroom material, etc. I then seek information and expertise from scholars and research I may not previously have been aware of.

I like how Gary pointed out the problem with the cliché saying "words will never hurt me". I agree that this is false. As Gary mentions the power of words is great. For example it was pointed out in my current class on American Indian literature how the slang term "red man" came about, and in my fall course on Multicultural Education, it was discussed how the slang term "fag" came about. Both of these are harmful words to other groups of people, and are obviously not just words. They have infiltrated past and present culture with the disparaging images they create, and stereotypical characteristics they insinuate.

Gary said...

Thinking about the power of words makes me think of how the spoken word can have great influence on 'culture' and society. The spoken word has often been a powerful medium for causing harm (as an example, witness Hitler's sway over the German people) or creating a positive can-do mindset (as shown by Kennedy's 'Ask not what your country can do for you...') which can have major impact on the and individual, a community, or the world.

Then again, remembering the stories my great grandma told reminds me that I am a different person than I would be without all that information and background. I have a better understanding of parts of history because her stories connect me in some way to those parts of history. That's part of what story is all about - connecting both the teller and the hearer to something other than themselves.