This is the latest in a series of blogs by partners of the Fluency work.
By Bea Dias (with editing support form Michelle and Jess <3)
Lately, I have been grappling with language, and how my own words often work to dehumanize and shame myself. I have engaged in a process of decolonizing my mind, which includes shifting the language I use. As a brown woman who grew up in South Asia - aka “the third world” - I realize that much of the language I have adopted is from a colonial, white supremacist gaze. It is not so much in how language is constructed, but more so the meaning embedded or encoded in the words we use. Words matter, and how we utilize the tool of language informs the way we see and experience the world. A vivid example of this from my childhood was the equation of “beautiful” with fair or light skin. This type of code is employed in many fairy tales as well, where the princess character is often described as “fair”. What is less explicit is the implication for those who are not seen as “fair”. This is where my own internalized oppression primarily occurs. If my embodiment is not encoded in the language that describes positive attributes, then I must represent deficit. This reflection has left me wondering about the standardization of whiteness and maleness and ability and heterosexuality (among other dominant identities) in our language. Constructing meaning this way creates at its base a dialect of deficit for those considered “other than” the norm.
Personal stories like mine are not isolated incidents - they are indicative of a broader system designed to marginalize ‘otherness’ and normalize power. How often have we placed qualifications such as “good” or “normal” on neighborhoods, schools, and student behavior? What do those spaces and activities look like? For example, who is excluded from our images of a “good neighborhood” and who is included? These are some of the questions I am following to interrogate my own internalized, skewed perceptions of the world.
Given the current pandemic and transitioning plans for school, there is often conversation about students being “behind” or having to “catch up”. I use quotations for this terminology because I am wrestling with what those terms actually mean. The question that comes up for me is: “Whom or what are we trying to catch up to, and why?”. On the one hand, I understand the role of benchmarks in learning, and on the other hand I wonder what this type of deficit dialect signals to our children and to each of us (parents, teachers, community members, etc.). Perhaps, we might reprogram language to honor us as we are in the present moment, to inspire rather than to judge. This might relieve some of the pressure we feel to “perform”, and leave us more space to be curious and reflective.
In my pursuit of lifelong learning, I realize there is so much I need to first unlearn or revisit through a different lens. In terms of language, this presents me with an opportunity to reprogram and play with words I use, so that they might empower and liberate my dreamscape of the world. As a parent, I am trying to see my child as a person full of genius insight, because he is my mirror and my teacher. There are moments when I can offer him ideas or questions to ponder, and he will absorb my words (or ignore them), and construct his own knowledge. As an adult, when I see young children, can I see them as budding geniuses ready to absorb and process new information? Can I see myself as full of wisdom and power? Everything might be relative, but who or what is our basis for relating to the world? This could be a place for us to shift our thinking, and move away from deficit dialects so that we can embrace language of liberation. Maybe in our reimagined freedom tales, the dark-skinned beauty wields their magical stone to help us touch and smell and feel true liberation.
“The opposite of oppression is creativity.” ~ Liana Maneese
M. Beatrice Dias (Bea), Ph.D. is the Co-Director of Outreach for the CMU CREATE Lab. Her work focuses on engaging with different communities of practice to explore the role of technology in society. Bea earned her undergraduate degree from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Following college, she worked in the private sector for two years before moving to Pittsburgh to complete her Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Bea embraces joy, believes in our collective wisdom and practices freedom-dreaming. She is the proud mama of a 9-year-old and is part of a very big Sri Lankan family.