Challenging Conversations: Word Choice & Historical Change

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Recently my Macmillan Community colleague Claudia Cruz posted “History of the Word ‘Queer’ and other LGBTQ+ Vocab”. Upon reading this post I was immediately reminded of a heated conversation that took place in my classroom five or so years ago. 


A traditionally aged college student who identified as transgender used the word “queer” when describing a particular group of women in 19th-century America. As this student spoke, a classmate in his 60s interrupted to ask that the student stop using what he viewed as a “derogatory” term. A brief argument ensued in which Student One contended they had the right to use the word while Student Two conveyed his belief that the historical use of the word made it unacceptable in the classroom. After class I tried to mitigate their disagreement. It was a difficult conversation. I too grew up in the era in which “queer” was viewed as slang and derogatory. In my youth none of my gay friends were publicly “out.” They disliked the word “queer” as it was often hurled at them as an insult. Claudia Cruz acknowledges in her blog that to some degree in the LGBTQ+ community the word remains problematic. “Student Two” who objected to its use in class identified as heterosexual and said he was uncomfortable with the word because he viewed himself as an ally, hence his decision to speak out against its use. 


The conclusion I drew from this encounter, which has been reiterated to me in dozens of classroom experiences in the years since, is quite simple: language is complicated, especially when it relates to personal or group identity. 


Students in my Black History class are struggling with this concept this week as they read James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. When I have assigned the book in previous semesters, I’ve noticed that Johnson’s use of the word “colored” throughout the story leads to students using the word in our class discussion and in their writings. Rather than correct each individual students as the word is incorrectly used, I now introduce the reading with the following statement in an email to the class as an effort to force students to think about the change in language use over time:


This week's novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, was first published in 1912. In 1912 it was acceptable to use the word "colored" to describe a person who was not white. Today, it is NOT. Please, when you are writing about the book/characters/themes, do not use the word "colored" as a descriptive unless you are directly quoting the author. In 2022 we should use language appropriate to our time: person of color, African American, Native American, black person, brown person, etcetera. The term "colored" stopped being accepted in the 1960s during the post-World War II civil rights and black power movements. You are invited to learn more about this change in word usage in the following piece on the issue from National Public Radio (2014): The Journey From 'Colored' To 'Minorities' To 'People Of Color' : Code Switch : NPR and in a second article from the Chicago Tribune (2020): Column: Why is ‘people of color’ OK but not ‘colored people’? A reading list for white folks - Chica...


Students have been incredibly receptive to this invitation to consider the historical evolution of language. Several have emailed me to say that they appreciate being educated on the proper terminology to use because they want to be sensitive to the way people identify themselves. This experience and Claudia Cruz’s recent blog remind me, once again, that as educators we have a duty not only to help our students learn facts but to enhance their understanding of the way in which words can have positive and negative connotations. We cannot assume that their pre-collegiate experiences have modeled them to speak with sensitivity or with an eye towards historical change. This knowledge, ultimately, can lead our students towards more cooperative participation in our classrooms and society in general.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.