Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Language of Power

By Christina Torres — September 29, 2015 5 min read
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“Alright, guys, it’s time to do a warm-up!” I called to my drama class on a Monday morning. They collectively groaned. They’ve recently been doing their best to avoid warm-ups. The mix of breathing techniques and mindfulness often make them feel “bored.” They said it makes them sleepy. Frankly, they just don’t want to do it. Until recently, I didn’t really care.

Warm-ups and breathing exercises were like calisthenics when I was a theater student: we knew we had to do them, and when we questioned why, we were told to suck it up and get it done.

Not my students, though. Last week, I had given them a five-minute history on Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, the UFW, and the unity clap, just for the heck of it. I briefly talked about the Union movement and had them do a unity clap with me to get us in a good space. We moved on.

Imagine my surprise when, a week later, my students met my response to their groans with the call to “unionize!”

“What?!” I cried, amazed they had even remembered.

Without responding, my 17 high school students somehow read each others minds’, circled around me, and began clapping. I started laughing and tried to move them into our warm-up. They continued. Apparently, my talk with them clicked, and they understood a fundamental truth: I was outnumbered, and because they were a larger group with a unified goal, my initial power as “teacher” could be (at least temporarily) overthrown.

They broke into the unity clap. I couldn’t stop giggling. I tried one more time, and they proceeded to civilly disobey and moved into the part of the warm-up they wanted to do.

I was so proud of them I nearly cried. Moments before, they were 17 individual students. With one word, one call to action, they had named and empowered themselves to change the tenor of the class.

I could only smile.

“Names matter. Words matter.” I share this with my students often, especially when they throw a phrase around and respond to my reproach with, “Oh, you know what I mean!”

Recently, I’ve seen the word “minority” pop up again and again in the news. I’m sure it’s been there for a while, but until the fraudulence of the term was called out, I hadn’t really noticed. I knew what people meant. The word “minority” as a way to identify “people of color” or “not-white people” was so commonly used that I had come to see it as an “acceptable” term.

Now I am filled with frustration. The word “minority” is false, dated, and racist. It is both factually inaccurate (talk about a confusing headline, by the way) and demeaning, as Dr. Keith Catone succinctly and hilariously points out. The Poynter Institute, Boston College, Stanford University, and The Root also all provide excellent writing about why we need to let this outdated moniker go.

So, if it’s incorrect, why are we still using it?

I don’t simply mean as an educational community, I mean in major news publications. I mean publications sponsored by the NEA and the AFT.

I know many of these reports and news stories have good intentions; I know what they meant. The term is often used to call out how communities of color are under-served: we mistreat “minority” teachers, we don’t do enough to recruit and retain “minority” educators, and we definitely don’t provide equal resources for “minority” students or see the brilliance of “minority students” the way we should.

The ideas behind those articles may be true, but when we use the term “minority,” we continue to use the language of disempowerment to refer to students, teachers, and communities of color. The word implies that the “minority” group lacks numbers and, somehow, power. When people of color hear ourselves referred to and, in turn, refer to ourselves as the “minority,” we use language that strips the cultural capital we have and diminishes our role to “victim.”

If I am told, again and again, that I am a “minority,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, actually, I come from a growing population rich in history, strength, and power. If I hear, again and again, that people like me are outnumbered and disenfranchised, my complacency begins to make more sense. Why bother? I have asked, as I throw my hands up in the air. Will they listen when my voice is small compared to theirs?

I understand writers and organizations may use the term for its ease, commonality, or perhaps to shine light on historically excluded groups. Still, even when the word is used to bring about righteous anger at society’s injustices, consistently telling the oppressed that they are the “minority” makes it easier to believe the lie that the hegemony has been telling for centuries: that the minority needs “the majority” to validate our worth and raise us up in order to achieve greatness.

Students, teachers, and communities of color don’t need saviors. We need tools, resources, and space to understand and nurture our own brilliance, and then find and share ways to let it shine as radiantly as we know we already do. The longer we use the language of disempowerment and see ourselves as “minority,” the harder it is to break down the internalized oppression that makes us believe our voices are small when, in fact, they are the impassioned roar that calls out in the hearts of so many of our students, teachers, and parents.

People of color may be subjected to injustice, but it does not strip us of our power to tell our stories. That begins with naming ourselves and our students with empowered language that centers us as the force that drives change.

After my drama students demonstrated their ability to organize, I put up my hands and said that I wanted to compromise. I offered a shorter warm-up in exchange for their cooperation. They cheered.

In the end, their small act of joyful defiance was never about disrespect. It really boiled down to a relationship. Had I taken the time to listen to what they actually wanted? Was I willing to step aside and let them show me what they could do and what they needed to succeed?

I hope that, at that moment, my students understood the power of their collective voices. I hope they saw that, even though they have been told they are lower on the hierarchy of authority, they carry the power to change the narrative if they want to. I am excited to help make space for their stories.

Photo: A group of student paddlers at Ala Moana Beach Park. Image taken by author.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.