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The Relationship Between Power and Language

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

Soooooooooooo... it's been a while but on today, I need to process this shiiiiiiiiit.

In a few days, I'll be starting my second year of this Master's program. If you know me, then you know that I absolutely love learning, but hate academia/institutionalized education. Hate isn't even concise enough for the layers of what I actually feel, but for right now--it'll do.

Anyways, my social anxiety just made a dramatic ass appearance, inspired by an email that I was initially excited to send... A fucking email. I'd just left an amazing symposium for African American linguists and ended up connecting with another person here in the city. We exchanged email addresses, and I shot a quick "nice to meet you, can't wait to chat" message, and then went to learn more about them via LinkedIn...

I found their page, and scrolled down to see what institution they were based at, when I saw the PhD by their name...and I panicked. I literally addressed (and had been addressing) them by their first name throughout the entire symposium and in the email.

*cue the intrusive ass thoughts* How the fuck didn't you put no respect on they name?! How will they respond to you not using Dr.?! How will you respond when they respond to you not using their professional title?! Why are you so panicky about this?!

There were some more random ass thoughts, but I turned the volume ALLLLLLL the way down so I could gather myself. I took a minute to breathe and then identify what the fuck was coming up from sending a gahdamn email...

So here's the root of the matter. When I started my undergrad career, I had a professor who told us to call him by his first name. He explained how titles uphold infrastructures of power, and that everytime you call someone Dr./Mr./*insert other title*, you directly insert yourself into a power dynamic. Part of deconstructing and redistributing power dynamics is by calling people by their name. Nowwwwwwwwwwwwwwww, this gets sticky because some folk want to be called by their title, rather than their name (unpack that when you have a chance).

Fortunately, this email ended well, with a follow up call, and the opportunity for some amazing conversation. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and also learning her personal sentiments regarding names and titles. As I continue learning and growing, I too, am figuring out how to honor my accomplishments without inadvertently perpetuating power dynamics. As of right now, I still believe it's a best practice to use my name, and not focus so much on affiliations or titles, but I know that there may be times when this comes up again. How will I respond to the people who insist on being called by their title? Is it even that big of a deal? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! I'm curious to learn other perspectives.

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