Editorial: Realizing the Power of Language

Editorial: Realizing the Power of Language

By The Editorial Board

Recently, members of the Fordham community took action when a Public Safety alert contained language found to be insulting and insensitive. The alert, which was sent out on Feb. 26, referred to two assailants as “male blacks,” a word choice that did not sit well with several students. They emailed Senior Director of Communications Bob Howe with their concerns that his choice of language carried a certain weight and should not have been used.

Howe rectified the situation on Feb. 27 by issuing a follow up email in order to apologize for the language, which he acknowledged as “clearly offensive and hurtful.” He also noted that he is required to inform the community of any and all descriptions of an assailant, including race, if the assailant is still at-large. However, the indentification of the assailants’ race was not the main issue of concern. Rather, the description of the assailants as “blacks” posed the problem. Using the phrase “male blacks” makes it sound like being black is not just a descriptor, but rather defines who a person is.

While race is certainly a major part of someone’s description, it should not be used to define a person. In previous security alerts, no white suspects were referred to as “male whites,” simply because it is not a colloquially used term in the past or present.

In addition, the term “blacks” usually carries a negative connotation. Howe himself realized “the historical weight that certain phrases carry.” The term elicits memories of rampant 20th century racism in which black people were referred to as “blacks,” seemingly removing the humanity from their race.

We commend the Fordham student body for voicing their concerns about this issue. It is all too easy to ignore the improper use of such language or not notice it at all. In a diverse community, it is important for such issues to come to everyone’s attention so that the misuse of certain words does not become a habit, which is exactly what happened with the public safety alert apology. Several students may not have noticed the damaging language used in the original statement, but Howe’s apology has brought not only this particular instance of bad word choice to light, but has also raised awareness to the fact that a seemingly simple use of language can have an effect on the public perception of race.

This could not have been possible had those students who spoke out stayed quiet. Some may have viewed the phrase as just a couple of words in a public safety announcement without seeing the problem with the way the assailants were described.

Fortunately, students did take notice, and an apology was issued as a result. Although Howe was “genuinely sorry to have caused anyone distress with my poor choice of words,” his mistake brought light to the issue of how labeling can be harmful to the attention of the entire Fordham community, thanks to the people who spoke up.

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