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July 8, 2020 34 mins

"Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd" is more accurate and accountable than "George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin." If you've heard or said phrases like the latter or "Justice for Breonna" or "You're racist," you need to listen to this episode in which Baratunde talks with educator, writer, and editor Yahdon Israel about how we often and easily embed oppression right into our language.

Find Yahdon Israel and his classes on his website or Instagram @yahdon

Find Khadijat Oseni on Instagram under @jetsetterproblems or @hommetheseries

Visit Baratunde's website for his newsletter, TED talk, and more. Follow him on Instagram or join his Patreon. You can even text him, like right now at 202-894-8844.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:01):
Do you remember grammar, set of rules we learned as kids,
often reluctantly and with great annoyance, about how to use language.
I've been thinking a lot about grammar and how it
can reveal power and the abuse of it in a system.
In fact, I built a whole ted talk on deconstructing
racism based on deconstructing sentences. Thank you English teachers of

the world. I collected many headlines for that talk, headlines
that chronicled white people calling the police on black people,
and I saw a devastating pattern of abusive power. White
woman calls cops on black man expecting his own property
can easily turn into police shoot unarmed black man on
suspicion of trespassing. In my case, the structure I saw

was as follows. A subject white person takes an action,
calls police against the target black person for engaging in
some activity inspecting property. It was fun for me to
imagine what would happen if we reordered that sentence. Have
the black man called the cops on the white woman
or change his activity to something absurdly innocent, say bird watching,

Or what if and this is a big if she
changed her action and didn't call the damn cops. What
if she simply waved at the man And that's it.
That's the Ted talk. I saved you like sixteen minutes
and fifty seconds of your life having to watch the video.
The point is, I've been using language professionally for decades,
as a writer, as a speaker, as a performer, and yet,

like all of us, I have things to learn. Fortunately,
I found a great teacher, and I'm gonna share him
and his lessons with you. Let me tell you about
how I came to know a man named your Don Israel.
It was a long time ago, in a place far
far away, June the year to be precise, but it

feels like a long time ago and far far away.
And I was exhausted and near oken. I was grieving
George Floyd. I was grieving the United States of America.
I was grieving myself, and I was doing a lot
of talking and answering questions about race, and all my
zoom sessions blurred into one until I was invited to
participate in something different. Kadija O Sany is a self

described cultural engineer and creative strategist, and she invited me
to a special online salon that she called home or
is it ome? It was it spelled the French way,
it was ho double mm. So I'm like, oh um,
because like meditation, but it was like home because we're
coming home either way. It's this combination of art and

wellness and cultural conversation space. And I wasn't really sure
what I was signing up for, but I knew she
was cool, creative black lady who would not steer me wrong.
And the invite promised that someone named Yadon Israel, who
I had heard of and briefly met before but couldn't
place him, will be the moderator of the meditation and
conversation on analyzing the structure of headlines to reframe slash,

revert the gaze away from the victims as racial objects
back to the racial subjects perpetuating the problem. I mean,
who wouldn't go to that? That's an instant click. In
that salon, we were joined by writer, organizer and educator
Mahogany Brown and it was a great gathering. But I'm
not here just to flex on how dope my zooms are,

and they're very dope. I'm here to share a lesson
that I'll never forget. I'll sum it up very simply,
George Floyd wasn't killed by Derek Chauvin. Derek Chauvin killed
George Floyd. How we say things changes what we're saying.
And your don opened my eyes to the ways in

which our media outlets and we ourselves can abuse language
and particularly the passive voice, and so doing we remove
accountability for devastating actions. You Don would know. He is
a master linguistic words smith. He's got mad credits. He's
an educator, he's an entrepreneur. He's a writer and editor,

the founder of Literary Swag, this cultural movement intersecting literature
and fashion to make books cool. He teaches creative writing
at both the New School and City College in New York.
He's the former editor in chief of Brooklyn Magazine. Like
I said, the man knows words. So we sat down
in Zoom to talk about the power of language and

the risk of misusing it, especially on the subject of racism, violence,
and systems of oppression. It starts with our taking for
granted that our words matter. George oh Well has this
quote that language corrupts thought, and thought corrupts language. So
it's like a touto logical circle. And for people who
don't know what Toruto logical means, it's basically a circular logic.

So it's like I think before I am, I am
before I think. But the sort of analogy he used,
like I drink because I'm a failure. I'm a failure
because I drink. And when you find yourself in that
sort of what I call linguistic poverty, where you do
not have language to disrupt the way your brain processes information,
even when you're introduced to new information, you run in

through the same filter that you already think through. And
so the language barrier lectures started because I spend a
lot of time reading through common threads on Facebook, Instagram,
and Twitter. And what I particularly like to do is
study a conversation between parties or between people and look

at where the understanding or the communication breaks down when
the barrier appears right. And it's interesting how people who
have access to the same words do not have access
a lot of times to the same language. And by
what I mean by that is that a lot of people,
and this is all of us have our own lived
experience with words, but we do not have the definition

of the word are using. So, for example, a word
like racism. It's a loaded word, not only because there
are so many quote unquote definitions, but because when that
word is thrown out, there is a reaction that's holy
private that plays itself out in public. Meaning if I
say someone's racist, right, a person is not necessarily hearing

what my definition is when I call them racist. They're
responding to their idea of what I mean by the word.
So in that moment, we have the same words, but
we have different languages. And so what I've learned and
what the reason why I create these language barriers um
lectures was because I saw, and I saw this as
a teacher, that most times when you're in a classroom

and you ask the definition of a word, most people
give you an example of the word, not the definition.
So basic example, I'll ask, like, what is red, and
they'll say an apple, and I'm like, no, an apple
is an example of what is read. They'll think and
then eventually might arrive it, oh, it's a color, right.
And so when you think about definitition, as you're thinking

about what do words mean, all that tends to point
to is the fact that many of us do not
have a basic definition for a word. A basic meaning.
And so a lot of my classes and what these
language lectures were structured around was let's develop a common
language and a common understanding of meaning before we even

talk about anything. We have to first establish a foundational
language structure that we're using. When can we make that
your class like a prerequisite for entering into my mentions
that Yeah, I think that that's a great way to
engage with people is before we anytime we engage, is

to first establish wait, what do you mean when you
say X? And this is something I learned when I
was you know, a lot of my time I spent
as a professional used to argue a white people on
on social As a professional that's a profession, would I
would wake up at nine, our clock in at nine,
take a break at twelve, clock back in at one thirty,

and and and and go today. And what a lot
of those arguments were about was me trying to use
language as a weapon, right, And what I mean by
weaponizing language was I had access to definitions that I
wasn't making available to the person I was talking to.
And I also knew or assumed that this person had

the same access that I've had to the language that
they had, so I thought it was a sincere argument.
And so when i'm you know, an argument busting someone's ass,
I don't know if I can curse on here with
with language, and I'm like, you know, pulling references and
and someone's like they can't even follow the argument. So
they're like, well that's why you you know, black people

ain't ship anyway. When they would just pivot, I would
follow their pivots, not recognizing a moment like this person
doesn't even know what I just said. The language that
I have is operating at a level that's like not
above right, It's like they're just it's they just don't
have access to those definitions. But I saw with black people,
I just saw it a lot of times. I'm just

assuming we know the same things. And so one of
the frameworks I introduced when I talk to anybody, right,
it's like when someone says, oh, that's racist, even with
black people, even with someone I've known for a long time,
is I go, wait, what do you mean when you
say racist? And what I do more in conversation is
I get I enquire more about someone's definitions to understand

the framework they're coming from before I engage whereas before
I was engaging first and only and expending a lot
of language and wasting a lot of time talking to
someone I thought understood me. So a way to think
about this is if somebody was speaking French, French is
not a language I speak, I don't try to argue

with that person because I already know we don't understand
each other. But what's the assumption of English? And this
is to your main question, what do you see a lot?
Is that because we have access to the same words,
we feel like we have access to the same language.
So it's like or this person understands me, and that
is not what's happening of the time we talk to anybody,
even someone we you grew up with, you assume you

know everything, like oh, we we come from the same world,
but we all have different relationships to the world. We
have different thoughts about this world. So that means our
language is charged very differently. And so the way we
don't take each other for granted and the way we
honor each other, the way we see each other in
this world is before we engage with somebody, as we
first asked, oh, I first asked what world are you

coming from? So I know, okay, when I'm talking to you,
I have a word for that world that you speak
to that actually isn't the word you would use. And
it's like, how do we translate to each other? Are
values and meanings to develop a different type of conversation
or develop a conversation conversation on that? I mean, it

is a very empathetic, cautious and I think even like
respectful way to engage with another person, which is like pause,
where are you coming from? Right? I don't think this
word means what you think it means, but or maybe
it doesn't mean what I think it means to you,
and so you can try to get on the same page.
So one of the reasons that I wanted to talk

to you is we did UH this home series with
Kadija a few weeks ago, and and mode that's right, poet,
poet moe, and this idea of how the media is
telling the story of this moment UH with a passive voice.

And I'm sensitive to grammar because the sentence dig gramming
in my own ted talk. And then I saw what
you did, and so I want you to share what
you did for me, which is put me on hyper
alert for statements like George Floyd was killed, right, Uh,
George Floyd died in police custody, Brianna Taylor was shot,

got shot? Yeah, can you tell us what those statements
maybe should sound like and and where your position on
that comes from. Yes, So just to give people a
basic framework of the English language. And it's like, you know,
people laugh, and you know what happens is what you
said is interesting, is like a lot of us have

trauma around language. So having European strip our language from
U somewhere so we don't even know what original language
sounds like, to the point that we have this language
that doesn't belong to us. But then also just on
a more personal level, like elementary school having to learn
subject and predicating all those things and just brain just
going like I don't get it, I don't need to
know this and just shutting off. And because people weaponized grammar,

it becomes another site for trauma because now you're getting
like beat over the head with something you don't even know.
You don't even know what it is, but you're getting
hit with it. You know, anytime someone's here's grammedy like
oh ship now and dumb right right, and what happens
with that process. When I hit you with something, it's
assuming what I'm saying in that motion of attacking you

in a moment of vulnerability is saying you know this already.
And so a person goes, damn, why didn't I know that?
As opposed to know there are so few people who
know this right. So to understand the basic unit of
an English language sentences, to understand that the basic definition
of a sentence is it's a complete thought. And what

a complete thought means is that there is three parts
to a sentence. Every sentence. For it to be a
complete thought, it has to have a subject, which is
the thing doing the action, which comes first to the object,
the verb, which is the action the subject does, to
the verb, which comes second following the subject. And then

third is the object, which is the thing the subject
is acting on. That is the order of an English sentence.
So that is that is a complete thought subject, verb, object.
Now and basic grammar school, we're just taught about the
subject and the predicate. What that means is what a

thought we believe or we have been taught in the
common framework of language, is that a sentence is what
someone does. So a sentence like that would be I walked.
Now that is a thought, but it isn't complete because
that thought doesn't have an object translation, that thought does

not have an objective. So that person who walked, why
are they walking? What are they walking to? You don't
know because there's no object read there is no object.
So even from a young age, the way we're educated
is to think not in complete thoughts, but already in
incomplete thoughts. We're only thinking about our actions in the world,

not the objective of our actions. So you're already operating.
And this is what's going to come to the passive
and active voice is when your framework and many of
us have grown up like this. It's the reason why
we don't understand, like how something we didn't mean to
do could still happen, because our framework is just what
this is what I did. So you can't tell me

that the object who was affected by my action is
what I meant to do. So the subject verb object
is that the subject does the action to the object.
So the subject's action has an objective. Every subject's action
has an objective. There is an every subject action has
an objective. Got it right? So that's what makes us

human beings. Right. So when we talk about sub objectivity,
it's seen in the sentence structure. Subjects act. Subjects have
agency with an objective. So without an objective, you do
not have an action. Without an action, you don't have
a subject. So when I talk about the definitions of
a sentence, it's important that when talking about one part

of the sentence, you understand that every part of the
sentence implicates another part. Thus it's a complete thought because
all parts of your thoughts are connected to one another.
There is no parts operating isolate and isolation. So now
when we come to the subject verb, object of subject,
verb object of a sentence, and active voice, active voice

is about the arrangement of accountability and power. By that,
I mean the subject does the action to the object.
So the subject comes first, the verb that the subject
doing is coming second, and then that the object that
the subject is doing the verb two comes last. Grammar
is about the way we arrange power and language. So
if an example is men kill women, in the sentence,

men is the subject, kill is the verb, women are
the object. In that framework, you know that men are
killing women. So the objective of men committing like this,
of killing someone is to do it to women. So
when you interrogate that sentence, you hold the subject accountable

because the subject is the one doing the thing. Now,
what I always show is what a passive voice sentence
looks like, which is, women are killed by men. Now,
what happens in that reworking of the framework, the objective
of the sentence becomes the subject of the sentence. And

then what happens from there is that the verb which
is supposed to be killed isn't killed. Now it becomes are.
And there's something that's essential to understanding about verbs that
there are tooth types of verbs. There are plot based verbs.
About plot based verbs, I mean, like things that operate

in the physical world, so things we taste, touch here,
see smell. Then there are state of being verbs is am, was,
are were? Those are verbs that describe internal states of being.
So what has internal actions? Right? So what happens in

passive voice is that the verbs go from something we
see concretely, an active voice, to something that becomes an
idea about perception. So an active voice, it's not men
are killed women, it's men kill women. It's directive. It's
direct It's like, Okay, I see who's doing what to whom.

When you say women are killed by men, it now
shifts the role of the actor to the object, meaning
that the object has no power. So a man couldn't
help but to kill a woman because she's a woman.
And so in that framework, what that does, that passive
construction is it gets us to actively interrogate the subject.

So we ask a woman, well, why did she get killed? No,
it but because they've been made. So it's like it
literally creates a cognitive business in your brain where even
though you know that's supposed to be the object, you
still treat it like a subject. My mind is awakened

to this, and like my radar is very active. And
I listened to read a lot of media and everybody's guilty,
but everybody's guilty, and you know, for example, not to
throw a particular outlet under the bus. But like National
Public Radio, I listened to their Quick Little Up First
the kind of podcast, and it's mad passive, and I think,

and I suspect though that part of the their intention
is they've been hearing hashtag say her name, hashtags say
their names, remember them, honor them, and so they're like,
we're doing the right thing. We're leading with Brianna, we're
leading with George. What do you want from us? So

how do you think about the say her name or
say their names? Desire to honor the fallen right while
also holding the appropriate party responsible at real action. So
I know, like part of part of like controlling narratives
is changing the structure. Right, So if we start talking

about the killer too much, then we're not talking about
the victim. So we want to talk about the victim
to humanize the victim. But once again it's a function
of cognitive dissonance to disrupt the language because the language
is complete. If I say Derek Chaumin killed George Floyd,
or if I say and I don't even have the

police all of the three police officers who are accountable
for Brianna Taylor is death on hand, the three right,
Like the three now in their names the day, I
just don't have them on because it's like one name
is easy to remember the three right, So I don't
have the three names that killed Brianna Taylor. The fact
of the matter of the languages is like if I

have a complete thought, I'm able to focus on two
things at the same time because it's essentially one thought.
So the language that we use in the world is
an extension of the language we understand in our own brains,
which is and this is the quote by um F
Scott fish Gerald that I often say in my class

and just when dealing with language, is that a first
rate intelligence quote unquote, not saying you're smart is the
ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at
the same time and still be able to function because
of the frameworks in which so many of us have
been educated to think on a grammatical level, which is
subject verb not subject verb object right, So subject verb
agreement right. Everything is about what someone does, not what

someone does, not the objective that someone does something, or
the person or the object that someone does something. Too.
We are from young already disconnected from other people's objects,
were disconnecting from our own objectives of language, so so
many objectives are missing from it. So it's like, you
want to honor Brianna Taylor by saying her name, How

does saying her name honor her? Right? And if you
ask that question, and I mean it's on a linguistic level,
it gets received. Someone receives it as you saying that
she's not important. Someone receives it as you're saying she
doesn't matter, whereas the language that I'm coming at this
with is it's about understanding what is the true objective

of your action. So in saying Brianna's Taylor name, what
is the objective? Right? What do you want to happen? Right?
And so even when you say justice for Brihanna Taylor,
what becomes the verb? If I ask you what's the bourbon?
Can't can identify one? I mean, justice is trying to

act like a verb. But no, but justice is the subject, right,
because we have justice subject for that's operating with a
verb should be Brianna Taylor is the object. But justice
is a Now what is for? You got me? Professor?
It's not I mean, it's not a verb. It's not

a verb, right, So what is for? And I'm gonna
I'm gonna type this up right now because I'm like
sometimes when I do these things off the top, I
don't want to like miscommunicate. Before is a preposition? Right,
So it's the it's the thing that sets a verb up, right,
it's a it's it's the thing that like it's the
alley hoop of a verb. Right, It's like because of

so it's used as a function to indicate suitability. So
we want justice for Brianna Taylor. But because even in
that statement there is no actual action, there is no
true subject and there's no true objectives. Yes, you're just
justice by who who are supposed to deliver it? Are

you asking for justice from the state, from the mayor
from the people, like, because otherwise it's just as floating
abstract idea of justice that no one is responsible for.
And so you kind of let some unnamed actor, some
unnamed subject off. And what I do with languages show

you how high the stakes always are when talking, when
using any language, the stakes are always high. And so
to understand that any time you open your mouth that
there is the stakes. This is life and death for
any of us whoever. It changes the way you interact
with the world. And an immature reaction is to not

want to engage, to say I'm just not going to talk.
It's not only immature, but it's an irresponsible way because like,
your brain is still doing the work, so you're still
thinking the thoughts. But once you start to put language
out into the world and you can see what that
language does, that's when you can begin to revise and interrogate, well,
why did I say it that way? Is there another

way I could have said it? And so what those
language barrier lectures are doing is is equipping people who
need this language the most with the understanding of the
language that they use. And it's oh, someone's always using
against us, and where a lot of times the victims
of language because what that language does is that we

read that language passively, we internalize it passively, but then
it actively works on our brain. So it's literally like
every day we go on the computer and we're clicking
spam accounts, like literally like expam, Like we're clicking all
these things, We're clicking fake news sites. We even read it.
The virus is already in our computer and is working
its way through our fouls. And then when we say

something to somebody else, we just said that thing we
read and then it's a where did you read that?
I can't remember? Who wrote that? I don't know. So
it's like information is getting passed through these filters and
none of us know who to hold accountable. And so
that's what the language lectures are doing is it's challenging
people to take an active role and active participation in

their in their language. You know, I'm thinking about um,
the depths of this lack of accountability in language. And
you know, when you put the object the target in
a sentence and put them in the driver's seat, essentially
make them the subject. Make George Floyd the subject of
his own murder, right, or make black people the subject

of our own optimization. Black people die at Black people
are more vulnerable Black like, what is wrong with these
black people? They can't get anything together there, They're destroying
themselves dramatically. And so even those who are doing the

great social science work and trying to get that message out,
the message is being perverted. In no, hold up, that
was passive. There you go, those who deliver information unto us,
especially in the media, sometimes even us ourselves, are holding
the objects responsible for their own demise, holding people responsible

for their own even in your framing, right, it's not passive,
but that that very right are holding? Think how different
and more powerful is holding right? Because when you say
are holding is a state of being, it's a perception. Right.
The person who is solely responsible for what they say
is how art is moving this world. So the reason
why art is such a fundamental threat to this American

empire we have because art is the only language that
we have. Through comedy, through music, through literature, through film,
through painting, through every meeting we have. An art is
one of the few things that challenges us to hold
the people in power accountable. Anything that functions outside of
the arts, the businesses, the law of the media, it

functions to maintain those power structures by being passive. Right,
it goes well like I don't want to be sued,
and it's like, so, because you don't want to be sued,
you're not going to tell it like it is. Well,
I don't want to be sued. But every day we
do that work as artists, we put ourselves out there.
I'm just as vulnerable as being sued as New York Times.
But I've accepted with the stakes of my language, that's

what I'm willing to do, to create a language of accountability.
That's one of the reasons why I like when you
read the media, understand that the media is not on
our side. And when I say on our side, what
I mean is if you are on the side of
holding systems and people who create systems accountable, because systems
don't create themselves, right, we're talking about the people who
uphold systems accountable, and you're on the side of accountability.

A media publication is not functioning on its own. It's
often functioning on the interests of the people who uphold
those systems, because media is itself a tool of those systems.
So it's imperative to read these things understanding that the
people who create these media publications have their own objectives

and instead of assuming that the news is just for
us to be informed, is like, what is this media
publication trying to inform us of? What does this media
publication want us to see? What do the people who
publish these things want us to see? And what can
we hope and what and what's the function of it?
Because so many of us know the people who write

for New York Times. Sometimes there's even less of us
who know who edits the pieces at New York Times,
but there's a minority of us who knows who actually
is the publisher of the Times, of Fox, of right,
bart of like, the actual person who has the power.
And what that means is to not be aligned with

that true subjects power is to not really know that
the head editor is an object of that publisher's power.
The writer is an object of that publisher's power of
the stories. It's objective behind objective behind objective is like
the series of middle management before you reach the person
who has the power. And that's what this language has

done to us, is like we're so disconnected from the
subject that we are all objects of this power. So
the objective of the language that we read in the
media is to create a passive thinking in our framework
so that we don't have a language to hold anything accountable.
Mind blown, I am literally doing that thing with my

hand where I like exploded out the side of my
head for dramatic visual effect. Yes, for a podcast, but
now you can see me doing it. To repeat Professor
Israel's closing line, and I'm going to call him Professor
Israel right now. Quote. The object of the language that
we read in the media is to create a passive

thinking in our framework so that we don't have a
language to hold anything accountable. This got to me because
we're in the fight for our lives as ever and
I'm feeling like we may be making some progress, and
it turns out we're not just up against systemic racism
in the form of policing policy. For example, we're up

against and complicit in it by the use of language
to subjugate and evade proper assignment of responsibility. Mind blown
for me. It also drove home this idea of moving
the object into the subject's place, putting victims of racism

or violence in the driver's seat. Women are killed by men, well,
that begs the question, what are these women doing to
get themselves old? George Floyd was killed by police? Well,
what was he doing to make that happen? Must have
been terrible? Or if we zoom out, black people suffer
from Black people are vulnerable to black people earn less

than I mean, what is going on with these black people?
Just suffer less, be less, vulnerable, earn more black people.
We've all been guilty of weaponizing language in a way
that shifts the responsibility onto oppressed people. We have used
language deeply structurally to blame the victim. Mm hmm. I

want you to follow you Don on Instagram y A H.
D O N. Visit his website your Don Israel dot
com and you can enroll there in his Language Barriers
lecture series. Kadija O Sany is on Instagram as well.
Jet setter problems. Is the handle and her home series
or is it home series? Lives on I G as

well h O double m E the series. Both of
these are in the show notes, so you can tap
there and type less. Meanwhile, stay vigilant. I know I
can no longer read or listen to passive voice of
reporting anymore without constantly correcting the language. Just like my

high school English teacher. I'm redlining all this abuse of
language in the name of freedom. I hope you do too,
Like as in the heat of the ramble, I ain't
got nothing to lose. I've been fighting these hard times

and the ghetto that was victory that I choose. It's
my soul? Is this the breest more my mind? Fix?
We're Having a Moment is a production of I Heart
Radio Podcasts. Executive produced by Miles Gray, Nick Stump and
barrattune Day Thurston. Produced by Joel Smith and Elizabeth Stewart,

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