This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Verbal dehumanization catches my attention any time I watch a film, read a review, speak or debate on the topic of immigration. Terms like "they," "illegals," "aliens," "undocumented immigrants" or just plain "immigrants," all in relation to a certain group of people, mirror the sentiments behind them: They are foreigners, they do not belong here, they are strange, they are not "us."
These words take away faces, stories, hearts, but most importantly the value that "their" lives carry. These words separate an entire group of people that historically has only been welcomed to this nation to work. The literal builders of this nation, immigrants, are contained within a status and level with words, with our language.
In the past, words have been used to degrade humans. As our country's diplomacy and newfound social integrity spread, we see new roads of hope being paved over weeds of horrific history. Our country's roots of racism, discrimination and prejudice find cracks in the cement to grow through. Words, simple words: nigger, spick, beaner, chink, jap, gook, greaseball, wog, kike, sand nigger, cholo, coconut, fritz.
Words that were used in our nation on television, in cartoons and newspapers, but most importantly, in everyday vocabulary and in our homes. Words that described the groupings we have been placed in since the birth of our nation.
Just words, words that are no longer accepted in public within our American culture. Words that have evolved like the leaves of weeds, but are still deeply rooted to their beginnings. The new language changes from chink, coconut, spick and beaner to illegals, aliens, undocumented immigrants. The words changed but they refer to the same people, the same faces, the same colors and the same circumstances.
The words become more powerful because they signify tax money, policy and economics. They hide the discrimination of racist laws whose words have also evolved into more acceptable terminology. The words of the past no longer had power; they were ignorant, prejudiced words that had to be changed to signify something more tangible.
The power of words, and knowledge, has been a coveted art through the history of our world. The words that make up books, newscasts, law, policy and every other written or spoken work are what define our thoughts, and eventually our actions. Feelings can be fomented by words, simple words intricately arranged.
Historically, the first step in losing compassion, love and human nature is to degrade, desensitize and dehumanize. We must truly believe that something or someone is unworthy of our human feelings before we can get rid of it. As we travel through the timeline of humanity we see the truth in this theory. The words that were used to articulate slavery, social class, race, sexuality, femininity, color and every other socially constructed group were the same words that desensitized and later degraded those groups, the same words and their meanings. All because the people who control the production of words are the ones who control their context, their groupings and their characteristics.
The comprehension of the power that our language and our words construct is the first step toward rehumanizing our nation. When we stop seeing others as the words and meanings that others have created, and start acknowledging their human faces, their lives, their experiences, we will begin to create law, policy and futures that are flexible and accommodate for equal opportunities.
Flor Olivo is a junior at the University of Utah. She is the mother of two and has been a part of and collaborated with several community organizations and projects.