Words Matter

Almost all fastfood restaurants have a walk-up counter inside, and a drive-thru window on the outside. No one questions this arrangement because fastfood proliferated during the rise of the automobile. The implicit message behind a drive-thru window is, “I am busy, I must retrieve this food before I continue back to my busy life, and I have no time to waste.” Adding drive-thru servicing helped maintain the illusion that fastfood was accommodating to a busy professional, so everyone was pleased that it flourished across the country. Unfortunately, the presence of a drive-thru also perpetuated the narrative that everything is faster with single-occupancy vehicles, and helped socialize everyone to demand cars. What if, instead of calling something a “drive-thru window,” it was called a “service window,” implying that a car was not necessary to receive faster service? Changing how processes are discussed is the first effort in changing paradigms.

One example of how language has changed the rules can be found in the food supply chain conundrum. Rather than talking about public and private disinvestment in Black and brown communities, people continue to discuss “food deserts” where there are no “reputable” grocery chains. This language has caused two problems: 1) too many corporate grocery chains have held communities hostage without being promised tax breaks; and 2) the constituents in certain neighborhoods have been accused of having no interest in their health. Consequently, during this pandemic, the reliance on corporate chains has meant that without their operations at full capacity, no one has full access to their bounty, leaving hungry mouths in an already stressful situation. By changing the dialogue to “food geographies,” as suggested by Dr. AshantĂ© Reese, more neighborhoods can discuss how to effectively utilize smaller and ethnic grocers, as well as initiate more community gardening in marginalized communities. No human being deserves to go without food because the upper echelons have not figured out how to reduce the carbon footprint of food.

Another poor word choice is the phrase “cheap oil,” which is the excuse the oil and gas industry has used to avoid making recycling profitable for less than 10% of plastic. For the last few decades, there was an initiative to push the blame of all the plastic waste onto consumers, who are responsible for recycling. However, consumers are not responsible for creating both the product and the life cycle of the product; the oil and gas industry is. During this crisis, it might have been helpful to have mass quantities of recycled plastic–as well as product replacement strategies–to reduce the waste of medical equipment needed to maintain sanitary conditions. More importantly, oil is not cheap because it requires international interference and allows the degradation of water quality during its production. The myth of “cheap oil” increases pollution and harms Black and brown populations, and it is time for those words to stop being used to justify the mounting heaps of plastic all over the world.

Words have the power to express and destroy, and too often, the dominant narrative has made it easier for the general public to ignore their own manipulation. Understanding how and why public and private entities use words to sway the populace will be critical to avoid recreating the mess that existed before this pandemic. Generalizations are motivated by one principal: control. As people scrutinize the processes around them, it will be more important to see why situations happen, rather than restoring inequity due to familiarity. After all, abusive situations do become familiar after a while, and people deserve better than that.


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