Mandy Tu (C’21) facilitates a discussion on the intention and impact of language. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
By Lucy Wimmer
“We have a very frivolous idea of what honor is at Sewanee,” Mandy Tu (C’21) said. “We look to it as a guiding beacon, but are we living up to those ideals? Are we living up to that concept of honor in something as constant and pervasive as the language we’re speaking in?”
On October 8, Mandy Tu and the Organization for Cross Cultural Understanding (OCCU) launched the first step in a year-long project to foster conversation surrounding the power of words. The Honor Through Language project was borne out of Tu’s interest in microaggressions stemming from a Latinx psychology class taught by Professor Al Bardi.
“The more I thought about the microaggressions that students at Sewanee, particularly students of color and international students, have to field on a day to day basis, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to have a couple of events focused on microaggressions,’” Tu said. This idea became Honor Through Language, as “microaggressions are a way you fail to honor other people with the words you say.”
The Honor Through Language Launch started with a talk by Bardi, who shared his personal experiences with people of different cultures than his own, and how to be honorable through communication. His talk focused on the ways honorable language is necessary to building strong relationships. “Ask yourself if the kinds of things you’re asking somebody or telling a person deepen your relationship or do they maximize difference. Do they other the other person?” Bardi said.
After the talk, trained student facilitators lead small group discussions. Tu created discussion prompts, such as ‘What is a meaningful compliment you’ve received?’ in the hopes that people would start thinking about how “words stick and words stay. If it was a really good compliment that meant something to you, you’re going to carry that throughout the rest of your life. If someone said something mean or devastating, you’re also going to carry that. And it’s going to take so much more energy to get over those words.”
Through these conversations, students, faculty and staff were able to listen to each other’s stories without the pressure of responding.
“There was a lot of listening going on,” Bardi said.
These small conversations gave people a space to be vulnerable, ask questions and make mistakes. “Every one of us has had different experiences with honor and it means something different to each of us. I never realized that you could honor somebody in so many different ways just through your words,” Elaina Organ (C’23) said.
Despite the differences apparent during these conversations, Bardi came away with a “strong feeling of similarity because of the basic humanity of everyone.” This conversation aided in the process of students and faculty thinking about how Sewanee can become a more honorable place.
“Get away from being politically correct, but promote grace,” Toya McIntyre (C’20), a facilitator and participant said. “I don’t mean promoting grace in an ‘I messed up and you have to deal with it’ way, but [that] we’re both coming to this conversation with the intent of understanding each other, first and foremost.’’
For McIntyre, honorable language comes through compromise. “It’s hard to do because it’s intentional on both sides. It’s difficult. And change is gross, and ugly, and sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s also tackling that. And you can’t tackle that if everyone’s afraid of what they can and can’t say.”
For Tu and McIntyre, the question of intent and impact are vital to honorable language. “What was your intention and what was the impact? Did the impact match the intention?” Tu asked. “If it didn’t, what can you do to make it align?”
“Honor is as much about the consequences of something as it is about the intentions,” McIntyre said. “If you want to change, your intentions should always be pure, but that you should always respect the input that people are giving you — respecting it, understanding it, and valuing it.”
As the start of a year-long project, this event is one step toward Tu’s goal of implementing these types of conversations in classrooms. “We could have a session on topics like this in say, a math class or a physics class. What we’re trying to do is raise awareness and offer up the opportunity for these kinds of conversations to happen in classes,” Tu said.
She also hopes that in the future, “something about dishonorable language, particularly on the extreme end of things, [will exist] in the Honor Code.” By holding space for these conversations, students and faculty have the safety and guidance necessary to be vulnerable together. These conversations can then step out of these spaces into the larger community.
Tu believes that we all hold power in the words that we choose to use. For her, “honoring someone through language is being aware” of this power. “We’re all human beings. We all thrive on words. What are you trying to do with your words?”