By Eunice Aber
I once read a blog that really impressed me. Too bad I cannot remember the author, or even the name of the blog, so the credit will have to pass. The entire blog was impressive, but one particular observation by the author caught my eye and got me thinking. It was about news reporters and the way they report news. The author observed that news reporters could dictate how readers or listeners could view some pieces of news, simply by the way they wrote or talked. Their language, and probably expression (though I would like to concentrate on the former), could set the tone for how the viewer or reader saw, felt about, judged or took in the news. “News reporters, bloggers, authors, TV directors have that unique ability to stir the recipient of information to whatever course they desired their audience to take,” I concluded from the impressive article and observation.
After making my conclusion, like any other African woman with enough on her plate to think of and do, I forgot about it – until now, when I had to apply that school of thinking in a real life situation. I engaged in two consecutive conversations where I made the same observation about language and its meaning. I realized that we have, over the years, been socialized to attach a negative or positive connotation to some words, phrases or comment. Even when the sentences, viewed from a totally objective viewpoint, would pass for just neutral comments.
For example, I was in a serious academic discussion with a group of friends when one of us, out of the blue, told another in the group, “Hope (not real name), you have big eyes!” And Hope replied with a smile-filled and confident, “Thank you”. I, being me, was quite surprised that she said “thank you”. So, I asked her, “Why did you say thank you?” And Hope answered, “Because people say big eyes are nice.” At that point I felt sorry for all the folks (especially ladies) in the room with small eyes. They would forever have low self-esteem about their eyes, and attach a negative impression to them. They would always feel belittled whenever someone, even innocently, commented that their eyes were “small”.
This is not the only time I had to go through that moment of wondering, “Why did you say thank you?” Again, in my university room, I had the same experience when my roommate was told by someone, “Sarah (not real name), you have really thick hair”. And Sarah replied, with that confident smile you give when you know you look the best at a party, “Thank you.” This time I didn’t ask her but I made a mental note of it. I couldn’t help wondering what the person with thin hair would be feeling after hearing that. My bet was that everyone in the room with “thin” hair would automatically have a psychological “hiding under the table” experience.
This is one point I do not want to hit too hard, because I know we have all experienced it. However, it is very hard to imagine the gravity of this situation until you find yourself on the negative end of a comment. Until your dark skin complexion becomes another word for ugly. Until fat becomes a synonym for unhealthy. It is then that everyone wishes that no one should attach meanings to things that cannot be changed. It is then that you wish your size was not a problem, that your hair type was simply a hair type. Not a “bad hair type”. Or your accent was simply an accent, not “poor pronunciation”. Or your tribe was simply “an ethnic background”, not a group of “violent people”.
To make something negative or positive is a completely voluntary choice. The issue is that we can choose our actions and thoughts, but we cannot choose the consequences. We cannot choose whether someone listening will lose their self-esteem or remain unscathed because of our negative/ positive comment.
Hence my main concern. It is important that we package our words with utmost care. Before we say something, we need to actually say it to ourselves and see what our reaction would be if we were in the receiver’s shoes. Of course, it is quite hard in this busy world to take the time to sort our words, but it is worth the try because words leave indelible marks. Worse than beatings in fact.
And I would also urge those that have succeeded in accepting and being confident about who they are, despite the negative comments used to describe them, to help others. Helping others doesn’t require a street demonstration or even making noise on social media. Sometimes, it is as simple as giving a polite comment of smartness or reminding someone they are beautiful and genuinely so. It is also about speaking out when someone else is stigmatized for who they are. And you can actually go to the greater extent of standing out. I gained a lot of self-esteem about my dark skin complexion after reading about the UK based Sudanese model, Alek Wek. For me, she re-branded “black (dark)” and packaged it in a way I had never seen or experienced before. After I read her story, my perception about my complexion drastically changed. I no longer felt those who had called me beautiful were doing it out of pity. Neither did I feel oppressed when someone made a mean comment about dark people, because I gained a sense of self-worth that swallowed the daggers of negative words thrown at me.
I close by wishing you all the best in this beautiful world, where we can never all be the same. Where no group is the best and no particular story will ever be the most complete. Where we; in our different sizes, colors, looks, accents and ethnic background, together, make up the amazing art piece of God; with each intricate part a design, and not a “mistake turned design”.