A Call for People-First Language

by Divine Pryor

January 15, 2019

Since the founding of the United States, language has been central to dehumanizing Black and brown people to justify violence and injustice. That oppression has lived in the racist polemics of the nation’s most prominent politicians and the dividing rhetoric of dog-whistle doublespeak.

For our ancestors and those of us fighting for Black and indigenous liberation – the power of language has brought the world beautiful poetry, storytelling and intellect in service of our freedom. At the same time, we have seen words weaponized socially and politically to secure white supremacy and to uphold patriarchy. These words are the tools that build a foundation of inequality that undergirds this nation.

These weapons are not new, and neither is the resistance against them. Social and political movements have long recognized the power of words, and pushed back. In every social movement I can remember, language has been the tool for change from which all other tools and initiatives flow. From Stokely Carmichael’s call for Black Power to the invocations of the disability rights movement, the capacity to change language holds within it the capacity to change minds. That is because language is the people’s weapon as well.

In 2005, the late Eddie Ellis and I wrote a letter that sought to inform the field of criminal justice about the importance of language. Though discussed in different terms at the time, there was growing awareness and resistance confronting the mass criminalization of Black and brown communities that has expanded over the past four decades. As more activists and advocates entered the conversation, the words “convict,” “superpredator,” and “monsters” rang out loudly in the speeches of every politician and reformer.

Falsehoods ring true to people who do not have the tools to remove the blinders of white supremacy. Those of us brutalized by police, overcharged by prosecutors and systematically repressed by the criminal punishment system – understand our humanity and how it feels for that humanity to be denied through language and deed. We must continue to reject this othering, though the language has been normalized and has even been adopted by policy-makers, journalists – and even among our own.

I have sat in too many rooms with criminal justice advocates who loosely throw out “ex-offender” or “ex-con.” I have heard too many so-called progressive prison reform advocates still call incarcerated people “inmates.” And it is the identifiably liberal media that continues to use the word “felon” when speaking about formerly incarcerated humans.

We will not stand for the language of oppression. We are brothers, sisters, and sons, and fathers, and mothers who have been branded by incarceration. And we remain those things even as we are stigmatized because we know the right to human dignity is fundamental.

And so we demand to be recognized as people first. Not cons. Not felons. Not inmates. People. We believe that in shifting the language we used, like so many movements before us, by defining ourselves, we would force a shift in the narrative in our towns, in our cities, and across the nation. We must be equally purposeful in our vigilance and our words if we are to break the structures that draw strength from the words of domination.

In honor of every person touched by the systems of criminalization and incarceration — let’s do what we can to fully embrace the transformative power of language and its central role in transforming societies. We must unify in demanding our peers and allies use people-first language. We must teach it to our partners. We must teach it to our adversaries. We must teach it to our children.