Non-Straight, Non-White, Non-Helpful: How Normative Language Limits Us
A Note on Communication
Words are more important than we often give them credit for. We commonly discuss the importance of delivery when it comes to both speaking and writing, often missing the importance of the actual words being shared.
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
Unfortunately, I’m here to ruin the magic and push back against that belief.
“But Joe, isn’t communication only 3% verbal?”
Yes and no. According to author, Phillip Yaffe, communication is far too complex to quantify how much any piece of communication plays a role in all of our interactions and certainly too complex to come up with “always” rules- rules that always apply in every situation.
An attempt to quantify communication makes communication into something it was never meant to be. Communication is incredible because it is not purely artistic or mathematical; it is not solely scientific or abstract. Communication is all of these things and more.
For example, let’s take an extreme case and consider racial slurs. There is no amount of helpful body language or inflection that is going to make it okay for Craig in accounting to say “nigger.” The word itself carries harmful connotations.
And before the white people say, “But black people say n-i-g-g-a,” we need to remember that white people are not entitled to all words in the dictionary. There is never an appropriate occasion for a white person to use the n-word. That word is a word that black Americans have redefined for use within the black community. Tone, inflection, and body language all matter when a black person is saying “nigga.” If a black person is not using the word, the word itself becomes a tool for toxicity and ignorance.
Better Language Exists
With that being said, it’s time we address our social identities and the way we describe living, breathing, image-bearers of God.
I absolutely cringe whenever I hear the phrase “non-straight” and “non-white.” I suppose they are descriptive and narrow down who a person is, however, these markers identify people by what they are not rather than who they are.
By calling someone non-straight, we know that their sexuality falls somewhere along the queer spectrum, but it does a disservice to their individual experience. One may say that non-straight is synonymous to queer in that regard, but that is simply not the case because queer encompasses both sexual and gender identity whereas non-straight only communicates base-level knowledge about one’s sexual identity. If the reason why someone would feel compelled to use “non-straight” is to talk about LGBTQ+ people broadly, then why not use an umbrella term that doesn’t relegate one’s identity to describing them as what they are not?
It is the same with “non-white.” When you call someone non-white, rather than acknowledging their identity as a person of color, you choose to place the emphasis on the fact that they are not the norm. If you desire to call racial minorities by a blanket term, try out “people of color” and then specify the race of the person or people you are referring to when necessary.
(And before any of my Christian peers say, “Identity in Christ before all,” please know that as a Christian, I value my status of child of God above all, however, “child of God” doesn’t really do a whole lot in communication settings, specifically when communicating the specific needs of various minority groups. )
Nothing Normal about Normative Language
When we describe marginalized groups by their non-participation in majority culture, we send the message with our words that they are only worth noting in reference to majority culture. The usage of “non-straight” and “non-white” reinforces that majority culture is the norm, which by default, labels anyone who falls outside of it as “abnormal.”
Straight is common, but it is not normal. In the United States, white is most common, but it is not by any means normal.The idea that these identities are “normal” comes directly from white supremacy and heteronormativity.
It may seem extreme to suggest that using words like “non-straight” and “non-white” contributes to systemic oppression, but I would tend to disagree. Language reinforces beliefs and sets standards for the way we view the world. If we continue using language which reinforces a default sexual, gender, or racial identity how can we ever hope to advocate for ourselves or others as equals?
So please, if you ever have the urge to say “non-straight,” just say queer regardless of how uncomfortable it makes straight conservatives. Visibility teaches. Hiddenness and comparison to the norm does not.