A number of political leaders have come to Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nevada) defense amidst the imbroglio over his ill-chosen words referring to President Obama during the 2008 campaign. In case you haven't turned on your TV, radio, or computer lately, Reid was quoted in the recently released book Game Change saying that Obama's chances at getting elected were improved by the fact he has "no negro dialect."
Top Democrats, including our country's first black Attorney General, Eric Holder, jumped to Reid's defense. The Associated Press quoted Holder as saying, "I don't think that there is a prejudiced bone in his body."
While I agree we should cut Reid some slack, I don't think we should do it at the expense of recognizing the power that language can have.
As a former media advocate for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, I know how much words matter. During my tenure with GLAAD, I often called up reporters, asking them not to use the word "homosexual." At first, it seemed a bit nitpicky to me, but after a few months, I began to understand the importance.
For example, according to a 2005 Gallup Survey, support for hiring gay and lesbian teachers is nine to ten percent higher when the term "gay and lesbian," rather than "homosexual" is used.
With losses in New York, New Jersey and California, marriage equality advocates need every ounce of public support they can muster. The repeated use of a few loaded terms can unfortunately help make the difference in states where support for gay rights is so evenly divided.
We like to think about our country as "post-racial," but the fact of the matter is that many of us, whether we're conscious of it or not, still harbor a lot of internalized racism. Certain keywords play on those embedded fears and stereotypes. Why do you think the conservatives kept using Obama's middle name "Hussein" during the election?
We have come a long way since the civil rights movement. But we still have a long way to go. Holding people accountable for using outdated terminology will only help ensure we keep moving in the right direction.