By Elizabeth Jepsen
Protesting about poverty. Policy for political change. Picket lines and signs.
Crowds of bitter faces chanting and demanding—not asking for—change.
How does this image of activism compare to the one your mind conjured up when you read that word? If the images look similar, keep reading.
I’m very conscious of words. I remember when I was a kid, watching a movie or listening to someone talk and hearing a new word. Almost immediately, my mind would become preoccupied by letter combinations as I tried to reason out how that word was spelled. Then, I’d try to figure out what it meant based on how it was used.
As I grew older, I began to notice that sometimes words could have a meaning different from their literal meaning, based on how they were used. For example, like when my older brother looked at me from across the breakfast table and said “Nice hair, Lizzie!”—emphasis on the word nice and subsequent laughter.
To state the obvious, my brother didn’t really think my hair looked nice. Instead, it was his way of making fun of me without deliberately saying “Your hair looks ugly,” which most definitely would have garnered more attention from my mom, if she had happened to hear. This way, he could get in his little jab and defend it, albeit weakly, if I decided to tell on him.
When I was younger, I recognized obvious connotations, such as the aforementioned example. Yet, as an adult, I’ve begun to notice that there are many more subtle connotations that are not so innocuous as sibling banter. Like when I was asked how “those” kids’ behavior compares to others. “Those” referring to the predominantly black and brown middle schoolers I teach. For a minute, I wasn’t sure why I instantly felt annoyed by this question. The person asking hadn’t blatantly said anything rude.
Later, as I was pondering this question and trying to understand why it had bothered me, I realized that it was the connotation of the word “those” when placed in front of the word kids. It was the tone and emphasis placed on the word “those.” It was the expectancy with which the person seemingly waited to hear something negative and the mild shock when I laughed and said, “They’re pretty normal 7th graders. Kind of hormonal and all over the place at times.”
Sometimes, the connotation of a word is more powerful than the word itself. It gives the speaker a cloak of innocence to quickly pull on when questioned because he or she didn’t “technically” say anything wrong.
Back to activism…
This word often seems to carry a negative connotation. However, I don’t think this connotation stems from how the word is used, but from how people see it portrayed. When we think of activism, the images that are most readily accessible are those that tend to triumph in the headlines of newspapers and on the covers of magazines – images that show hordes of people marching and shouting with picket signs and posters. Activism does exist elsewhere, though, and in different forms.
As a matter of fact, when I think about the social and political change that needs to happen on a large scale, I see that there is not just one way to make it happen. Consider social justice leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—both were civil rights leaders and activists, but with vastly different approaches. Many say MLK was too passive and others say Malcolm X was too extreme. Nevertheless, both men undeniably had a profound impact on the previous and current generation of our society.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the above described type of activism, there is more to it. You don’t have to possess a megaphone and rally large groups of people to be an activist. An activist is someone who fights against the status quo for political or social change—and there are many different ways to do that.
We can practice activism when we put aside our pride, prejudice, and biases and thoughtfully engage in a courageous conversation where we question what we have implicitly accepted to be the truth.
Or, in reference to the comment about “those” kids, instead of responding in annoyance for the connotation it carries, I humble myself and discard the air of righteous indignation when I remember that I, too, have made similar thoughtless comments based on ignorance—and then, after coming to this recognition, respond with kindness and the intent to build a bridge,not burn one.