I recently had coffee with a good friend. We get together once a week to discuss ideas and enjoy some deep discussions surrounding our respective projects.
In this particular conversation, he brought up the fact that a one word term he often uses, as many in our field do, has become increasingly uncomfortable to him. He mentioned that this word he used to describe a certain subset of people, while in some ways accurate, in many ways he felt was deeply wrong. In fact, he stated, it had become a primary goal of his to eradicate his use of it and urge others to follow.
When he told me what the word was, I understood immediately why he was not comfortable. The word was, in fact, derogatory. Like every other derogatory word, it was specifically charged with grouping together a very diverse set of people, stripping them of their value, their contribution, their identity, and even their humanity. As a person of color, I understood what it felt like to be on the receiving end of such a term. Painful and powerless. As a person in the same general field as my friend, I also felt a sudden sickening realization that I too had been using the same word. Not just to describe others but also to describe myself. I felt shame.
I tried my hardest to figure out how this term, in such wide use, could be functionally different than, say, Coon, Cracker, Gook, Guido, Wetback, Towelhead, or any of the multitude of terms we have used far too often throughout history to deride, belittle, de-humanize, or otherwise put aside the contributions of a whole group of people. Often it is a group that is directly responsible for our good fortunes and well being, not to mention deserving of basic human dignity and respect. I could not come up with a way that made it different or OK.
Now, I could make myself feel a little bit better by resting in the knowledge that I am not alone. That just as he and I use this word to describe people, so does just about everyone else in our field. The companies who’s products we depend on for our livelihood use it. The services we are members of. And we also describe ourselves using this singular derogatory term more than we care to think about. I’m sure others throughout history have let themselves go to bed a night believing the same.
Not I. Just because it is widely used does not make it right. Just because it seems innocuous and most do not take offense, does not make it OK. Because, though we find it hard to admit to ourselves, the intent is to take away value with this term. The very word itself ignores the fact that it is in direct contradiction with the people it describes. These people are creators, doers, thinkers. People who are using advanced tools to do complicated tasks and build the companies that are currently winning the twenty-first century. The very people that, without whom, there would be no Facebook, or Twitter, or Apple, or even Internet.
So, what is this vile, mean, despicable, term that I have vowed from this day forward to try to never use again?