Words Matter

Words Matter

"My Grandma referred to African Americans as "nigros", which I thought was appallingly close to a really bad word and mortified me every time she said it.  At first I cut her some slack, allowing for the fact that she was an older woman (born in 1900) unaware of  how the words describing race had changed in her lifetime.  But then my brother dated a woman from India and Grandma asked, "But isn't she a nigro?"  It confirmed my suspicion that the word wasn't spoken in innocence.  In Grandma's mind the word "nigro" meant someone who is outside our acceptable circle.  It was an ostracizing word that made clear that we white people were different, that we were better.  The word "illegals" has similar power.  It connotes the idea of people who are far outside our circle of acceptable friends.  We, the "legal" ones, are better than they are.  When I think about the word "illegals"  the first thing that strikes me is that it is a descriptive phrase that has been turned into a noun, which has happened only recently.  When I first started practicing immigration law over twenty years ago no one ever referred to "illegals".  They might be "undocumented people", "people without papers", or even the offensive "illegal aliens" (how's that for a phrase connoting outsiders?)  but never just "illegals".  The use of nouns to distance ourselves from other groups of people is common." - Laura Danielson, Mar. 17, 2012.