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Sticks and Stones: Claiming Our Names

A public radio station in Minnesota promoted a story this week about a high school student who published an op-ed in the New York Times. On the surface, this seems like the normal type of feel-good story that many stations use to fill social media feeds. However, the essay the student wrote is a rejection of the term Latinx from someone “in the community." Which is where the story gets problematic for me.

The student states that he is Latino, but he is a cisgender, heterosexual person which means that any article that places him as a member of the transgender and nonbinary community and claims he is speaking as a member of that community is being disingenuous. In the essay, the student states that his community rejects the term Latinx and so it should never be used – pushing instead for Latine. While this student has the right to hold that opinion, he has asserted on one side that members of the Latino/a community get to decide which terms define them and on the other demanded that the same decision be stripped away from members of a specific sub-community within the larger Latino/a community.

At one point in his opinion essay, the student says: "Language changes over time, but such adaptations must be organic. Forced changes from outside our community are a form of linguistic imperialism, which centers the English language and perpetuates cultural erasure. At its core, this is an issue of linguistic self-determination." This is an interesting assertion since he is speaking for his own right to demand that others adopt his own language preferences, meaning he is rejecting "linguistic imperialism" as cultural erasure and then asking that the Latinx term be erased because he doesn't like it. The student does not need to see himself in the term. But once he demands that others agree and stop seeing themselves in the term, he is advancing "linguistic imperialism," not fighting it.

Instead of reaching out to any members of the Latinx community to ask their preferences, the station opted to promote a single student’s view and deny the transgender and nonbinary people who are Latinx to comment and respond with which terms define them. That is denial of a right to some based on the bias of others.

Being part of an adjacent community and identity does not allow you to speak for the people within that community. Even within the same-gender-loving, Bi+ and gender expansive communities, we do not get to speak for other people and their identities.

I am not Latinx. I cannot speak for people who are Latinx or Latino or Latina or Latine. I can speak for the right of all people to claim their own terms. In fact, I support this student’s right to respond and correct anyone who mistakenly calls him Latinx, claiming his identity as a Latino man, and I would fight to preserve that right for him and for all others. I just wish he w/could have spoken for the preservation of that right for all people.

Identity and our right to determine our own identity.

Those two related concerns are being debated all over the country right now.

Who gets to decide who we are and which terms we use to define who we are?

Words matter.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, as the American Indian Movement grew, the term Native American became the preferred term of the media and United States government, but it has never been universal. Activists and most tribes west of the Mississippi prefer the term Indian. Most tribes in the northeastern United States prefer Native American. Native Times reported an elderly Lakota man on Standing Rock as saying, "If some Indians want to be called Native Americans or Natives, let them be called that, but I was born an Indian and I shall die an Indian.”

That is how it should be. We each get to decide, and each community gets to decide which terms to use. No one gets to make that determination for someone else.

In The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison says; "When I discover who I am, I’ll be free." The terms we use for ourselves open the door to freedom. When we find them, they hold the power to transform our lives, and sometimes the world.

We each get to claim our own dignity as people and that begins with claiming our names and labels.

That right is non-negotiable.

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