On language, education and change

By bxk
When running workshops on gender, I often bring up the phrase “language is limited and limiting” as a way of reminding myself and the folks present that words can only go so far in making change happen. I’ve been trying to interrogate my own reliance on a social justice rhetoric (and what “counts” as that), especially after reading this blogpost last year. Here’s a spoken word poem where I think through some of this stuff. It’s still a work in progress, but since it’s meant to be performed, try reading it aloud to yourself. 

We each received a notice in late January:
In an effort to promote the safety and inclusivity of our community,
all words related to diversity education have been banned.
We believe that language of resistance presents an affront to the values of our society.
You have been given a tally. These limits are designed with your personal well being in mind.

And then, beside my name:
Current tally: 23.

It’s been an adjustment. There was a rumor
going around last May, but this is for real.
I’ve found audio trackers everywhere from
my bathroom faucet to the handlebars of my bike.
They’ve got phone lines tapped and
search alerts on Facebook and Google.
If you say any word on their list,
anything to do with social justice (22)
at all, its traced, and your tally drops.
The list of banned words is only getting longer.
Most scholars’ names, important book titles
and identity terms went first.
Then associated verbs and nouns.

It’s hard to know what words you really need to say.
At 62, “problematic” (21) still seems important,
but at 21, not so much. The other day,
my friend pointed out that I was taking up
three seats at the library. She didn’t need to say
“asserting masculinity” (20) for me to realize
my arm extended on the back of her chair,
like the quotes in the feministing (19) article
on misogyny (18) I happened to be reading
when she raised her eyebrows.

On Tuesdays, a group of us get together
to organize. (17) We’re closer to each other now.
I don’t think we knew what we meant by “safe space”
(16) when we were actually able to say it.
I can hear the jargon unraveling from around our sentences,
the spiral of rubber grips unsticking from bicycle handlebars.
Words still gummy, a friend stumbles when asking:

“If we’re complicit (15) in the syst- (14)”

“If our lives don’t match up…
with the values we talk about,
what’s the use of words anyway?”

I understand her more than I ever have.

A few months ago, the loss felt massive.
Some folks on the Internet even tried to rename “privilege”.
(13) They replaced it with something completely random: giraffe.
(12) The trackers caught on, of course, and
National Geographic had to cancel their African safari special.
“Recognizing your giraffe (11) is difficult”?
I can’t say that with a straight face.
Tried it in a Gender 101 (10) workshop,
gave up after the first shot.
I cut the whole vocabulary section altogether.
People don’t need to know how to name things, really,
just gives us an intelligent sounding word
to cover up our bullshit. (9) Come on,
privilege, (7) giraffe, (6) bullshit, (5)
what’s the difference, really?
Riding my bike up Mass Ave, I try whispering a word,
testing how much it makes me ache to lose another.

Queer (4)

I forget how much that word used to mean to me.

Turning down Sacramento St, I grip my handlebars and
pedal hard towards home, leaving my most precious ones to the wind.

Honesty, (2)
Compassion, (1)
Change. (0)
The only sting is cold air on chapped lips.

bxk is an artist whose work puzzles through experiences of gender, race, faith, and queerness; the politics of language; and the complexities of making change happen through art. They are one half of the performance poetry duo About That Elephant. You can find more of their poetry work at and upcoming performances at facebook.com/AboutThatElephant



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