In the kind of work that I do, I often have to think about how language either can harm or can help someone. When I’m talking to someone or come across a statement that says third world or the needy, there’s a part of me that just shatters. I feel a pain inside. I hate those words. Those words are so laden with misconceptions. If you hear someone say third world what kind of image comes to mind? A child who is hungry, whose face is covered in flies. A community that’s dry, where the animals are starving and the land can barely grow anything. You think of slums and cities that are filled with garbage, with no things like plumbing or electricity.
The idea of a third world was developed last century in order to differentiate between the communities that were advancing and the communities that had stalled. The terminology harkens to hierarchy. If you’re from a third world country what kind of impact is that going to have in your self-image, your identity, your understanding of where it is that you are from? This hierarchical way of seeing the world will lead you to place people on a hierarchy from best to worst. That’s why I absolutely hate that phrase.
I also hate the word needy. Someone who is needy is someone who is helpless, someone who is not able to make any change in their life. Imagine if someone described you as needy. How would you feel about that? Would that empower you or would that give you the confidence to do something about your situation? Of course not. If you’re needy, you need other people in your life and the assumption is that you can’t do anything for yourself. So I often hear people saying that they love to help the needy. This can be a glimpse into that person’s belief that they are helping someone who could not do something without them. They are stepping into a role of a savior, based on a view of hierarchy.
Whenever I choose my words, I try to think if someone used those words towards me, how would I feel? If I hear someone saying that I am from a third world country or that I am a needy person, would I feel proud of those words and my background, or would I feel that I was being judged? Would I feel excited about the things that were being said about me or would I feel like those words are meant to diminish me or my position?
That’s why at Cultivate we try to use our words carefully. When you hear us talk about places like the majority world, the developing world, or the global south we’re trying to use terms that can empower, can uplift, can encourage rather than harm.
The difficulty with language is that sometimes words don’t exist in a certain language that perfectly explain what you’re trying to say. We must try to develop language that empowers, that uplifts, rather than suppresses these communities. We know that it takes time for the common language to shift. But if people start hearing a new term or associate it with a new meaning, eventually it spreads. In centuries past, words were used to describe minoritized people that today we are appalled when we hear them being used. Change is possible.
I just saw Black Panther. I know, you’re probably thinking that I should have seen it sooner. I loved the movie, but there was one scene where CIA Agent Everett uses third world. I was really surprised to hear this, my impression was that the makers of Black Panther were so purposeful in creating a movie that displayed the best of Africa and African culture. I wonder if anyone even questioned the use of that term in the movie.
I courage you to think about your words. Are you helping the needy or are you supporting someone who has just as much potential as you but needs a friend along the way? Think about how your words can impact others and your worldview. I know this is challenging but I believe that change is possible.