The Weight of Words

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Words and the way we use them are immeasurably important. The adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” never rang true for me. Growing up, I was a damned near constant target of bullying. Nothing has had a deeper effect on me than the words that permeated through my soul.

When you hear something often enough, it chips away at you. No matter how hard you try to just shrug it off, you begin to believe it.

Words are my art medium, so I feel an even stronger responsibility for their use. This is why I was appalled to see this:

Not because I didn’t know that “spook” was a slur, but because an entire publishing team didn’t know—or didn’t care. There aren’t nearly enough people of color in publishing, nor are there nearly enough white people in publishing who actually speak up or, at the least, listen to their colleagues.

It’s true that words often change over time or hold multiple meanings, but that’s never an excuse for using them. As writers and publishers, we have a responsibility to choose and use words wisely. As white people living in a world that has always been diverse and always will be, we have a responsibility to remember the weight of racial slurs, to teach each other and our children their meaning and why it’s harmful to use them.

I’m white, so I can’t know what it’s like to have toxic words lobbed at me, stripping me of my humanity because of my skin color, but I do know what it’s like to be pelted with poison


and again

and again

until it seeped into my skin and became a part of me. I’m a full-grown woman but to this day I carry certain negative beliefs about myself because I heard them said to me so often. The difference is, the words that hurt me aren’t intertwined with my daily life, embedded in society. I don’t have to worry about whether a book that I pick up to enjoy will remind me that I’m viewed as other and wrong in the world that I live in.

No one should have to worry about that.

Yes, “spook” also means “spy” in the U.K., but here in the U.S. it’s also a derogatory description of black people. Its etymology varies depending on the source, and the Merriam-Webster doesn’t even list it as a slur. A huge part of progress is remembrance; here in the States, we have a bad habit of erasing important things from our collective memory, especially when it makes white people uncomfortable.

The things that we don’t talk about always come back to hurt us as a collective, doing the most damage to people of color. Ignorance enables oppression.

This is why we white people need to remember the weight of our words, to teach our children and each other how septic they can be. Pretending they no longer exist enables an entire publishing team—linguistic professionals!—to overlook an eviscerating racial slur.

Just like it wasn’t my responsibility to explain to my abusers why their words were harmful, it is not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about slurs.

As a nation, we must remember them and confront the pain they cause head on.

And dammit, we need more people of color in publishing. We also need more white people in publishing who are willing to challenge these things right alongside them.

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Elizabeth Barone

Elizabeth Barone is an American novelist who writes contemporary romance and suspense starring strong belles who chose a different path. Her debut novel Sade on the Wall was a quarterfinalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. She is the author of the South of Forever series and several other books.

When not writing, Elizabeth is very busy getting her latest fix of Yankee Candle, spicy Doritos chips, or whatever TV show she’s currently binging.

Elizabeth lives in northwestern Connecticut with her husband, a feisty little cat, and too many books.

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