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Offensive Words Lead to Offensive Actions

Every so often I hear complaints about how tired people are about being politically correct. It’s something that gets thrown around a lot these days, especially with the debate about ethnic team names and mascots. And it’s revealing of something more insidious than many people realize.

You know the ones I’m talking about. The people who say things like “Yeah, okay, Tonto” and “Yeah, okay, chief.” The ones who ask if you can score them some peyote. The ones who root for the Washington football team, claim they’re honoring Native people, then tell the next Native person they see to “go back to the reservation.”

And when the people speaking these offensive things are called on it, they often get offended. They act as if the impact of their words should be discounted. They act as though others who have been on the receiving end of their discriminatory words and actions, should just “know” what they meant, and that what they said, necessarily, wasn’t discriminatory. And they say, all too often, that they’re sick and tired of everyone being so politically correct.


On the one hand, people do have a right to free speech, and intent really does matter. I firmly believe that good intentions should be embraced, celebrated, and encouraged.

But on the other hand, intent helps drive discrimination, and people can learn to think, speak, and act in discriminatory ways without being aware of it, and without intending to do so.

This, in fact, is one of the major reasons why institutionalized discrimination persists--because it’s become embedded in people’s thoughts and actions, often to the point they’re often not even aware of them or intending to discriminate.

Of course, saying something discriminatory does not necessarily make the discriminators inherently bad people. It makes them, like the rest of us, citizens of a country that is still very much struggling to extricate itself from a long, painful legacy of institutionalized discrimination.

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The tricky part is that intent can be next to impossible to discern. Many, after all, can claim to have had a better intent in order to minimize or invalidate the experiences of others, to distance themselves from the reality that they said or did something that was insensitive.

That’s what makes it so insidious. By basing their arguments on intent, they leave themselves just enough room to shirk responsibility, to wiggle out of legitimate charges of racism with their egos intact.

For those of us who have been on the receiving end of such discriminatory statements and actions, it’s not fair to be expected to play mind reader, or to be expected to always assume that just because someone says or does something that is discriminatory that they necessarily had better intentions. This form of care taking the offender helps perpetuate the status quo and minimizes the experiences of those who have been discriminated against.

Furthermore, even when people initially have no intent to discriminate, their use of discriminatory terms and phrases can not only have a discriminatory impact on others, but their use can influence the person
speaking them to think and act in discriminatory ways without them realizing it.

It’s hard, after all, to call someone a “red*kin” or a “ni**er” and to not subsequently treat them like one.

That’s why words matter. Words not only reflect a person’s thoughts and beliefs, but, through their use, can shape a person’s values, beliefs, and actions, making them prejudiced without them even realizing it.

That means it’s not just the case that actions speak louder than words. It’s also true, in this society rife with institutionalized discrimination, that results speak louder than intent.

DaShanne Stokes is a Lakota doctoral candidate at The University of Pittsburgh and author of The Unfinished Dream: A Discussion on Rights, Equality, and Inclusivity. Follow him on Twitter @DaShanneStokes.