By Ian Kerstetter
“It just feels like I have to walk on eggshells when I’m around you Ian. I’m never sure what words to use or what I shouldn’t say,” she tells me. We are 20 and I can see in her eyes that we are growing apart. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could tell her, “you don’t have to feel like that. I’m not going to be angry with you if you say something I’m uncomfortable with. I might be upset, but as long as I know that you’re willing to listen to me when I explain why I’m uncomfortable, then it’s fine. The issue is that you’re scared of being wrong, and I can’t control that. I care about words because I know what it’s like to be hurt by them. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.” I try to say something similar but I’m not sure it helps.
I am 21 and someone walking by me says, “Everyone’s offended by something these days. You can’t please everyone with all this political correctness, Jesus.” I have heard it before, but my ears still begin to burn and I want to tell him, “I’m not offended. I have been called faggot and redskin and freak enough times by assholes like you to grow a pretty thick skin. Hateful language doesn’t just offend, it has harmed me. And I may have grown up and grown this thick skin, but I am still mad because I see others harmed by it. Words are powerful. Faggot is not a word that allows a young person to imagine how beautiful, complex and important they are. Telling gay couples that their love shouldn’t be legal tells young gay children that their love is invalid. Deliberate and coded racial slurs perpetuate white supremacy and tells people of color that we are not safe or powerful or important around you. Making jokes about rape helps men justify raping. Language is important, you asshole.”
But I don’t say any of that to this stranger. I am afraid to challenge such confident ignorance.
I am 22 and I begin to tell people that while he/him pronouns are fine, I would rather them not call me man/dude/bro because I don’t always identify as 100% male. I mostly ask the women who are close to me, because I feel safer being honest with those who already see me for who I am.
I am 23, and this boy I just met (on Grindr, let’s not pretend) kisses me and asks, “So I saw on your profile that you’re Native. How Native are you?” And as far as I am concerned, the date is over. Because I remember being a child again whose white friends joke that I can track animals and speak to trees because I’m a redskin and whose native friends joke that I’m not Native enough because I grew up so far away from my Nation and have fair skin. I remember being in a bar with a friend of a friend whose parents own a vacation home in Santa Fe (strike one) tell me that my heritage is “cool” (strike two) and that we definitely have something in common because he’s “1/16 Cherokee”. Seriously. Three strikes, I’m out.
I am almost 24 and this date is over because indigenous people, my people, have had their ancestry measured and documented by colonial governments in order to keep track of us and erase our identities and communities. The date is over because I am a whole person, not a half or a quarter anything. The date is over because I am a citizen of the Oneida Nation, no matter how mixed I am or how many miles lay between the rez and the hospital I was born in to my loving parents. The date is over, and I want to tell him, “I am biracial and I am whole. Colonial notions of ethnicity aren’t good first date conversation material.” But my anxiety and memories of this same conversation clamp down my jaw and I do not feel strong enough to say anything besides, “I am biracial” and hope that he doesn’t press further. Incredibly, he does: “So like half and half?” I want to die. I mumble, “yup” and change the subject. I know I am never texting this boy again, no matter how cute he is. I suddenly remember how much I miss my family. I break down sobbing on my walk home. The weight of words and of people interrogating my blood cracks me open all over the sidewalk.
• • • • •
Asking people around us to describe us using the language we prefer to describe ourselves is not a symptom of a spoiled generation as baby boomers assert. We are not asking that we be treated like special snowflakes. The descriptions of our genders, orientations, racial identities, politics, and other aspects of the self that we are asking others to use are not selfish. They are a vital and urgent attempt to live our truth.
In doing so, we are asking a limited language to perform in new ways that reflect a fuller, clearer picture of human experience and who we are within that infinite spectrum. Asking others to recognize the way we describe ourselves is a radical and healing act, one that seeks to re-infuse stagnant language, and ultimately, relationships with the breadth and depth of diverse human identities. Raised in the height of multiculturalism, we are no longer satisfied with standing to the side as the token minority characters. We ask to not only be tolerated, but to be seen for who we are and listened to when we speak of ourselves.
This is the message every politician, artist, director, writer, employer, teacher, and parent needs to hear: When someone who is different from you speaks, listen to them. When you don’t know something about another person’s experience, ask them. We are the experts on our own identities and experiences, not pundits or preachers or politicians or insulting Hollywood caricatures of us. The first and last step in learning about someone different from you should be listening, not telling or interrogating or justifying or citing the flawed media and language that we don’t fit in.
Telling others how we prefer to be spoken of isn’t always easy to do, but someone sincerely listening can go a long way towards communication.
This is more than just political correctness. It is a move to try to undo and revise the often restricting and harmful language that we have inherited from a dominant culture built on imperialism and control. It is an attempt not just to “tolerate” but to honor and celebrate the fullness and beauty of human experiences, as many of our ancestors on every continent did in their languages and traditions before being colonized and displaced. Whether a nonbinary person is asking you to use pronouns that they prefer, a person of color is asking you to not use racial slurs that perpetuate white supremacy, a queer person is asking you not to apply heterosexual norms to them, or anyone is asking you to use language that they prefer, they are asking you to see and embrace who they really are, something everyone has a right to. In the current political climate we live in, this is more than just a request for human decency. It is a move to be seen and heard amid so many voices who would erase us.
If all of this feels difficult or overwhelming, trust me, it should. Learning any new language is difficult and requires intention and consistency. But know that no matter how hard or inconvenient it might seem to use different language, know that it is far more difficult and inconvenient for many people to learn it and invent it, surrounded by societies and languages not built for them. Know what we are trying to bend these languages to fit everyone better and ultimately, to reshape our reality to do the same.