The Power of Words

A few days ago, a colleague introduced me to a fascinating ad campaign. It won a prestigious Cannes Lion, but the most impressive thing to me was how it harnessed the power of a hateful expression and turned it into both an affirmation and a call to action.

“Go back to Africa,” it proclaimed.

The campaign took the hateful language that’s ever-present on Twitter and reshaped it into a call for Black Americans and others from the diaspora to consider vacationing in Africa. It showcased the beauty of the Motherland and was powered by an algorithm that targeted African Americans with images of other Black people vacationing happily in more than 50 countries on the continent.

While just a single ad campaign, it joined an ever-louder conversation taking place in my head about the power of words. How some words were born of oppression and violence. How other statements, like this one, have acquired the properties of hate speech over time. And how so many regional variants of this language of oppression exist globally — each just another way to cast groups of people into dominant and “others” cultures.

Words have been weaponized over centuries, often to create the “otherism” as the designed outcome. If you don’t have to consider another person to be as human as you are, they can be conquered without moral consequence. Honed over centuries, phrases like “Go back to Africa” take on additional power with every utterance. If the award reel for the campaign is accurate, that phrase appears once every three minutes on Twitter. But as anyone who has ever had an epithet used against them in anger can tell you, these phrases are used precisely because of the power that they have to inflict pain on another.

Cruelty and dehumanization are the point.

Some words seem to have been popularized and made mainstream so broadly they have their own gravity, like the “n-word” in the United States. But outside of being called this word in anger, non-Black people largely underestimate its power. Many people could, say, read a few pages of “Huckleberry Finn” and be astounded by the casual and welcoming use of the word. When I read it, something different happens.

I’m transported to a very specific memory.

When I was in middle school, I was the only Black student in many of my classes. I was precocious and engaged as a student, as a child. On one specific occasion, I challenged what my teacher was teaching. This was common and often encouraged for kids in talented and gifted programs. I questioned the lesson’s accuracy. Her response was to silence that challenge with the most hurtful word she could find — in front of the entire class.

“Look, you little n—–, stop it now and have a seat.”

I have carried that memory around for the intervening 35 odd years — and it has never faded. It is as vivid today as when it occurred. Perhaps it’s become even more hurtful over time, mainly because it’s relived often when a similar situation occurs triggering that traumatic memory.

As an adult, I now realize that most members of marginalized communities around the globe have had this experience or a variation of it. These types of words exist in just about every corner of the earth and cataloging them here is unnecessary.

What is necessary is to point out the power dynamic that keeps them in circulation — and to look for ways to strip them of power where possible.

But they pose other challenges.

When we raise contempt with someone for using this type of language, far too often the dominant culture’s response is to sympathize with the person who said it in the first place. “You know they didn’t mean it that way,” people will decry. “I’ve known them for years, that isn’t what they meant.” “You’re being too sensitive, that wasn’t the intent.”

All of I this, I believe, is easy to say if you’ve never experienced the words weaponized in your direction. The more you’ve experienced them — institutionalized and systematized into regional lexicons as they’ve been — the more aggregate power they wield, regardless of context. The more the hurt resides within you already, just waiting to be reanimated.

How do we shift the paradigm? How can we create a culture of empathy, where all our colleagues, friends and maybe even family members want to choose better ways to express themselves — even in anger?

How can we work together in ways that promote healing and growth, just as the ad campaign manages to do in a powerful and elegant way? And, most of all, how do we make respect for one another a genuine goal?

The past few years highlight what seems to be a regression in hate speech experienced collectively around the globe. We’ve seen a global pandemic called the “China virus” and the “kung flu” to “otherize” it, along with millions of American citizens in the process. We’ve seen words weaponized to such an extent that our own nation’s Capitol was stormed by folks fueled in anger and violence. We’ve seen dozens of our Asian American brothers and sisters subjected to violence.

How can we harness the power of words for good?

For me, it begins at home. It begins in my community. It begins in our work here at Genesys. This month, we’ll host a company-wide conversation on the power of words for all our employees. We believe fostering a culture of empathy and belonging starts with education. It includes frank discussions. It’s grounded in respect for one another.

Taking this step might not erase any hurt. It can’t undo centuries of oppression and hate. But we believe it can help us contextualize our word choices.

It won’t make everyone in the Genesys community instantaneously aware of the myriad of slurs that exist around the globe, but it can help some be cautious enough to avoid them. Insulating ourselves from ignorance isn’t an admission of weakness or an admission that “political correctness” is winning. It’s a call to action in the service of decency. And it’s one that we at Genesys are working to embrace.

With empathy guiding our products, employees and strategic direction, taking this particular step together moves us in a direction that’s aligned with our core values.