Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. I still remember my mother quoting this nursery rhyme to me after being teased. It was her way of helping me to get over the hurt of being made fun of. On one hand she was right. Being teased did not cause me any physical damage; I was never rushed to the emergency room because of name calling. To this day I am still haunted by some of the labels that were given to me – loser, scardy-cat, preacher’s kid, and wimp. In the years since, I have become convinced that the good advice this nursery rhyme appears to provide is actually horrible guidance. It is true that sticks and stones can do a great deal of harm, but we mislead ourselves when we think of words as risk-free.
This past week I have been preparing for a seminar on White Privilege. The power to label and define others is one of the more sinister aspects of this privilege. Think about words like enemy, gang-banger, insurgent, drug-dealer and urban-rat. If I were to ask you to create an image for each of these labels chances are that it would not include people of Anglo descent. On the other hand if I were to ask you to form an image for America, apple pie, Barbie, GI Joe or a great leader chances are that an Anglo image will form in your mind.
Words are powerful; do not let anyone tell you different. They have the power to build up and tear down. Labels can make us unreasonably fearful or envious. Fear based labeling is both dehumanizing and sinful.
One of the primary images for humanity in the New Testament is family. When we use language that dehumanizes, ridicules and looks down on other people we cease to be Christian.