Why Language Matters to the Conscious Mind

Someone once told me that they stopped following my Twitter account because it was so “ADHD” – meaning I am too into everything. (I could unpack how offensive it was to use a term for mental illness as an adjective but let’s assume we can all agree on that one for now.) This critic could not determine what I was most passionate about – teaching, special education, libraries, mental health, equity, the LGBTQ community, my family and more, more, more.  At the time I did not have a good response and my feelings were hurt.

The comment has stuck with me and although I use Twitter as a tool for both personal and professional dialogue I often question if I should just target one area of passion over another.

But then I am reminded of something one of my women’s studies professors said many years ago in university.

“Once your eyes are open, once you are conscious of something you can never close your eyes or become unconscious towards it again.” (I am paraphrasing but the concept has driven my own understanding of equity and social justice throughout my life.)

In my recent post “Owning My Ignorance” http://mrsjbrown1975.edublogs.org/2016/07/08/owning-my-ignorance/ I shared my journey into consciousness about the authentic and ongoing legacy of the Canadian government and society’s destruction of Indigenous culture, communities and lives.  So maybe to the disappointment of the person who made that original comment, I have added the crisis for Indigenous communities to my already multifaceted “Twittering” and learning.

With that in mind, I try to view the world through these “conscious eyes” – attuned to bias in representations of gender, race, culture, sexuality, class, ability, age, and now, more for me than before, Indigenous culture. I am sure my eyes still need to be opened to many, many more issues but, each new layer of consciousness only adds to my understanding of how the intersection of identity and lived experience creates our reality.

So today while touring our local museum and art gallery http://www.pama.peelregion.ca/en/index.asp with my family I felt the full weight of this conscious world view.  Walking through the many displays of the various collections I was overwhelmed with pride at the number of times I assumed I would find bias or deficit language BUT I was wrong.

Let me share just a few examples:

This sign struck me immediately.  I had already noticed that much of the clothing on display represented the white, Christian childhood experience. However, if you look closely, the curators at PAMA had identified the same thing.  They not only correctly identified this as the most dominant segment of their collection, but also used powerful words like “sadly”, “diverse” and “change”.  They openly ask the public to share their stories and objects to help fill this gap in the collection.



Then I entered the section that was dedicated to The Story of The Aboriginal People in Peel Region.  Note the images just below and the phrase WE ARE HERE.  This is a profound choice of language.  To put the phrase in the present tense sends a strong message to everyone who enters the space.  This display is not in the past – it is a reflection of the actions and experiences of the past and the subsequent impact on the existence of Indigenous communities and lives in the present.

IMG_3148 IMG_3147


IMG_3152 IMG_3151

To take this messaging even further these images make it impossible for the visitors to miss the point.  Ingenious peoples are not old stereotyped textbook images.  They are part of our contemporary society living with the horrific legacy of the decimation of their culture.



Then I came across the display below.  Tears filled my eyes.  The word “genocide” jumped out at me and hit my heart.  It made me feel tremendous shame and pain for the atrocities my ancestors and governments had and continue to perpetrate against Indigenous peoples.  But it also brought forth a feeling of pride in our local museum staff for having the awareness and courage to use this powerful, dark and accurate word.  The writing of Pam Palmater @Pam_Palmater opened my eyes to the importance of and resistance to using the word genocide in Canada’s responses to the needs to Indigenous communities. I cannot overstate the importance of using this word in the display. It is a word I will embed in my teaching from now on.








The WE ARE HERE section of the PAMA also emphasized the importance of helping the visitors understand that language matters.  This poster and hand out offer visitors some guidance on how Canadians can select words more thoughtfully when discussing Indigenous communities.






Language matters.  It just does.  It is not “political correctness”.  It is simply how we demonstrate value and respect for others and their lived experiences.  I say the wrong words all the time.  I may have said the wrong words in this post and hopefully someone will point that out so I can make the necessary edits.  The book I am currently reading is pictured below.  In the very beginning of the text one of the key subheadings is Language Matters. The authors state clearly  “The words that we use in classrooms, labs, hallways, cafeterias, dance studios, gymnasia, and soccer fields can be key mechanisms for both oppression and transformation.” (p.8)



We cannot become conscious to everything at the same time.  We must learn and grow in order to change our choice of words. But once our eyes are opened and we become conscious we can do better.  We must do better.  Lack of consciousness is not an excuse for the use of oppressive language. But once my mind is conscious to a new understanding I am committed to choosing my words with more care and thought.


So my Twitter account will continue to lack some focus and I am ok with that because with each eye opening experience I can live my life differently for years to come.


One thought on “Why Language Matters to the Conscious Mind

  1. Hello Jennifer,
    I wish I knew how to use Twitter, because I would definitely follow you. I love your honesty in this blog. Inclusivity is such a buzzword in educational circles. Yet, so many of our diverse cultures are but a footnote in our history books. I was a history major in university. Our indigenous peoples and women were persona non grata in the survey course I took in Canadian history in first year.

    I think your approach to being conscious of our words is key to being human. I teach in a very diverse and accepting school. I have a grade 9 girl who is going to start taking hormones to transition to becoming male. I pray that she will be emotionally safe from the words of others as she begins to live her authentic life as a male.

    Thank you for the reminder. Everything I think, say, and do has an impact on the world around me.

Leave a Reply to Andrea McCabe Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *