The Power of Words

Mike Starkey

Many years ago I worked in a black-majority church in north London. I was in my early 30s at the time, and it was the first time I had really got to know people from African and Caribbean backgrounds. It was the first time I had made black friends. On one occasion I had the privilege of being guest speaker at a Caribbean cultural evening, where I was the only white person present. It was a whole new experience for me, to be an ethnic minority.

The more I got to know people in London’s black communities, the more I started to see life in Britain through their eyes. In particular, I started to realise something unsettling about the English language.

I noticed just how many traditional English words and phrases use ‘black’ in a negative way. I might buy items on the black market, I might blacklist somebody when I’m in a black mood or give them a black mark. A black sheep of the family might try to blackmail me or blacken my name.

And the longer I spent with my black friends, the more I started to notice this – all over the place. In everyday speech, the English language mostly symbolised blackness in negative ways. Whereas the word ‘white’ was more often neutral or positive.

Our words are powerful. The book of James in the Bible compares our words to a small spark that can start a forest fire. That is how powerful our words can be. The words we use each day of our lives can express healing and hatred, love and loathing, care and criticism.

James writes mainly to warn his readers about the harm their words can inflict on another individual. And, of course, he is right. We all know from our own bitter experience the sharp pain of hasty or angry words.

But I am convinced there is a broader application to James’s message. It has something to do with the wide variety of people in our society, and whether our shared language marginalises them or associates them with something negative. I am thinking of the diversity in people’s ethnic background, gender, class, age, and so on. In north London, I came to understand how an everyday English phrase such as ‘black mood’ might sound to one of my black friends.

And I realised that the simple act of finding a few alternative phrases can be a way I show love and respect to whole groups of people. In other words, the kind of language I use is an aspect of my Christian discipleship.

The book of Proverbs says a gentle tongue is a tree of life. Far better to plant a tree than burn down a forest.

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