Today, I want to explore the deeply unsettling impact of dehumanising language and its connection to the erasure of individual identity. Allow me to take you back to a moment in my primary school days when I first encountered the horrifying accounts of the Rwandan genocide. At the time, the gravity of the situation eluded me, but as I have revisited this dark chapter of history, my understanding has deepened. One aspect that has left an indelible mark on my consciousness is the language used by the Hutu militia to fuel their campaign of hatred against the Tutsis. They dehumanised them, referring to them as “cockroaches” that needed to be eradicated.
As I’ve spent time researching the division that rose in Rwanda, the parallels between the dehumanising language the Hutu militia used and the historical oppression of enslaved individuals become apparent. Just as the Tutsis were stripped of their humanity and reduced to insects, so too were those who were enslaved subjected to a similar fate. The term “slave” does not define their identity; it represents what was done to them, a tragic condition imposed upon their lives.
Throughout history, dehumanising language has been employed as a tool to desensitise and delegitimise others. Words like “dog,” “pig,” “rat,” “ape,” “monkey,” “leech,” and “maggot” have been hurled with malicious intent, eroding the humanity of the individuals they target. When these degrading words are incessantly repeated, they not only inflict deep wounds but also perpetuate a self-perception in the targeted individuals that aligns with the dehumanising labels. The abuser derives power from demeaning others, blurring the distinction between oppressor and oppressed.
Knowing and understanding language is incredibly powerful. That’s why understanding the history of the terms most commonly used in racial equity work is so important on your journey. It allows you to not only be informed but also be in an empowered position to differentiate when others seek to take away the true meaning of certain terms. It’s what led me to create my brand new e-book “Important Words You Need To Know On Your Racial Awareness Journey”. It will help you have a deeper understanding of the words used, the historical context, who coined the term and how some of the terms may have been misused to mislead people.
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