The following reflection was written and shared by Dr. Kate DeConinck, Teaching Professor, Department of Theology and Religious Studies.
In 1943, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published an article entitled States felt at being labeled “refugees.” She begins the article: “In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees.’ We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants.’[…] A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical political opinion” (69). The stigma that came with being labeled refugees had deep psychological and existential consequences for the Jewish American community, as evidenced in a story that Arendt shares about a man named Mr. Cohn, who goes so far out of his way to assimilate to his new country that he loses all sense of who he is. in a small Jewish periodical. Like many Jews, Arendt had fled Nazi-occupied Germany in the mid-1930s, and her article describes the discomfort that those who had recently arrived in the United
This past spring, I taught FYW 150: Rhetorics of Fear, Hope, and Belonging in the U.S., and one of the first readings that I assigned to my students was Arendt’s article. To be honest, I was not sure how our class discussion surrounding this piece would unfold—this was my first time teaching a course geared exclusively toward first-year students, and I wondered if they would grasp the meaning of Arendt’s prose or find her claims interesting. To my delight, what unfolded in our classroom was a meaningful dialogue about the power of labels. We talked about the challenges that Jews coming to America in the post-World War II era faced and how conventional ways of framing identity and inclusion (which were—are often still are today—derived from the concept of nationhood) only contributed to their hardships. We also read the late Eddie Ellis’s “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language” aloud together. Ellis was an activist who spent 25 years in New York’s maximum security prisons before going on to co-found a think tank that advocates for the formerly incarcerated. In this letter, he writes about the damage that labels like criminal, inmate, prisoner, felon and so forth can have upon men and women who are trying to forge new paths forward in their lives. Ellis claims that terms like these are “devoid of humanness” and only serve to portray the formerly incarcerated as “things,” or embodiments of their crimes, rather than people (1). He encourages his audience to reconsider the language that they use, writing: “[we believe] that if we can get…publications, organizations and individuals like you to stop using the old offensive language and simply refer to us as ‘people,’ we will have achieved a significant step forward in our life giving struggle to be recognized as the human beings we are. We have made our mistakes, yes, but we have also paid or are paying our debts to society” (2).
Our conversation about these readings highlighted how the discourse we use in our everyday lives has real implications for the ways in which we imagine the world around us as well as our relationships with others. “Changemaking” can be a big concept to wrap our minds around, often conjuring notions of large-scale activism or fearless dedication to empowering underserved communities. But, as our dialogue in class revealed, Changemaking can also take form at a more mundane level. The ways in which we speak about other people in our everyday lives can also serve to effect change and promote social justice.
To follow up on this conversion in class, I asked my students to complete a short writing assignment for inclusion in their weekly writing portfolios. Students were tasked with picking one word that is commonly used to describe a group of people in the United States today and then write a short response to unpack the weight that word carries. With their permission, I share some “snapshots” from their work here:
I share these selections from my students’ work with the hope that their ideas might inspire further critical reflection and dialogue about how to promote Changemaking through small but intentional changes in our everyday discourse.
Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, edited by Marc Robinson (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994): 110-119.
Eddie Ellis, “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language,” Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, 2007, https://cmjcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/CNUS-AppropriateLanguage.pdf