Chapter 4: Anti-Racism and Nursing Communication

The Power of Words

Most of us grew up hearing the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s intended to make us feel strong and brave, but it’s actually far from the truth.

Words are powerful, and words do hurt.

Not only do words hurt as they are spoken: but they may also have long-lasting effects on health and well-being. In previous chapters, we discussed how experiences of racism can lead to acute and chronic physical conditions as well as feelings of social inadequacy. Racist words and phrases play a major role in perpetuating racist practices. Overt words of racism are often called out due to laws and workplace policies and can lead to disciplinary actions. So, how can racism continue? 

The answer is that racist speech is easily disguised and is often accompanied by “I never knew I couldn’t say that!” or “It’s only a word, I did not mean any harm!” Many people do not take the time to think beyond the word or phrase and the emotional pain it can trigger for a Black and racialized person. This kind of emotional pain is often referred to as racial trauma, which is the cumulative and traumatic effects of racism and its continual recurrence that can involve psychological and physical effects such as stress, nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, and heart palpitations (Comas-Diaz et al., 2019). By understanding racial trauma, we can become culturally aware: words may not affect one population much, but might be life-altering and damaging to another population. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the power of words.

Imagine you are watching a movie that takes place in the deep South of the US. A young white man calls an older Black man, “Boy!” What is the meaning behind that term? It undermines the Black man’s maturity and signifies to the Black man that he is less than an adult, less intelligent, and simply “less than” the white man – all of which would have lasting effects on the Black man’s self-worth. Another example is that after 9/11, Muslim communities were labelled as terrorists, creating fear and distrust toward them. When white supremacists were rioting in Charlottesville in response to the proposed removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the then-president of the United States publicly called them “good people.” These examples illustrate the power of words and how they can criminalize one group and exonerate another. 

The history of anti-Black racism reflects the influence of words used toward Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities; some of these words have also been extended to certain groups of inferior white immigrants. These words continue to influence beliefs and how certain populations are viewed – because words have power.


Video: The Power of Words [8:03]


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