Jenée Desmond-Harris, an Opinions editor for the New York Times, wants 2019 to be the year media thinks twice about who they mean when they say “we.”
As part of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s predictions for Journalism 2019, Desmond-Harris’s prediction, or rather hope, is that, “When we suggest that something is true of everyone—or of a group of people—when it’s really a more accurate description of what’s true of white people in that group, it alienates readers and destroys trust: If you’ve forgotten that people of color exist, what else have you missed?”
Desmond-Harris also hopes journalists will “remember that everyone isn’t white.”
Canadian media members are also guilty of using the “we” word, or insinuating that one view is everyone’s view.
In January, Maclean’s published an article titled, “In an election year, Canadians are suddenly very worried about the economy.” But what about the people who have lived in constant poverty and have always been concerned about the economy? The Walrus published an article titled, “Why do we have such a problem with the way women speak?” Then there’s the multitude of fashion magazines discussing the best new products “you” and “we” must have this season.
In the Toronto Star newsroom, Style Chief Anthony Collins says the discussion surrounding word choice has been top-of-mind. The Star’s print coverage of the January 2019 Women’s March featured an image of a cold, blustery day accompanied by the headline, “It was Minus 15, Nevertheless They Persisted.”
Collins says that the use of “they,” and the possible assumptions associated with the word, were discussed: “We were referring specifically to those women marching in that weather, but it was pointed out that a different way of reading it could be we, the men of the newspaper, talking about they, the women persisting.”
Collins says that anytime the word “we” is used in a news story, the writer instantly assumes that all of the readers are on the same page, and that there is an “us” and “them.”
Dr. Carmen Rodriguez de France, a professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria, says that word choice and subsequent exclusion is a frequent focus in her courses, especially the way words often become normalized when really they should be questioned.
“Sometimes as a society we accept words that become part of the dominant discourse without necessarily questioning why we are using this word and not that word,” Dr. Rodriguez de France says, adding that unless someone takes the time to reflect and question what statements mean, they go unnoticed.
“The effect sometimes on minoritized groups or racialized groups is that there is the potential that these groups continue to practice with themselves some kind of learned helplessness or internalized oppression,” says Dr. Rodriguez de France. “These are scripts they have heard all throughout their life, and [so] it must be true.”
Dr. Rodriguez de France adds that often non-dominant groups have experienced exclusion throughout their lives, so they consider it a given. “No one questions results, or the rationale, or nobody asks well why are we doing this? That’s the risk in not questioning.”
Shree Paradkar, a Star columnist, also believes that words should be discussed more. Paradkar says that while gender neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” are heavily discussed, the pronouns “we” and “our” don’t garner the same level of discussion.
“They are small pronouns but they are so weighted,” Paradkar says. “When we say “we,” we are just saying we are white people, we are fairly well-off people, we are maybe heterosexual people.”
Paradkar says she approaches the use of “we” differently, through the unique perspective of being a columnist and an immigrant woman of colour. She notes that she doesn’t know too many others who fall under that description and, because of this, the pronouns “we” “our” and “you” take on a different meaning.
“My idea of ‘we’ has always been challenged, even before I began writing my column, because when I say ‘we’ who do I mean?”
Paradkar says she has always had to be cognizant when using the loaded word.
“By the time I began writing my column in the Star, I felt very Canadian. So when I say ‘we’ I mean us as Canadians,” Paradkar says. However, because she often writes about racism, misogyny, and white supremacy, she gets responses from readers who attack her usage of the the word “we.” “People will often say, ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ ‘Speak for yourself, you’re not talking for all of us.’ I had to wrestle with that for a bit,” Paradkar says.
Then, in February 2018, Gerald Stanley was acquitted for the murder of Colton Boushie. Paradkar felt a visceral connection to the case, and felt a deep sense of grief at the outcome.
She watched as non-Indigenous people went about their day as usual. With anger, she took to her column in a different way.
“That was the first time I [consciously] wrote a column that began with ‘you,’” Paradkar says. “Until then I would slip in and out using ‘you’ and ‘we’ interchangeably, and this was the one that I began by saying if you are going about your business without a break in your step this weekend, without a thought for Colton Boushie, ask yourself why that is so.”
In her column on Boushie, Paradkar proceeded to use “you” repeatedly throughout the following paragraphs, before writing: “Do you see how indifference makes us all complicit?”
“I wanted to use ‘you’ in a provocative way for the first time because I wanted people to be angry. Even if at that moment the anger is directed at me, I wanted to shake them out of that complacence.”
She then wrote: “Forgive us, for we know not what we do—even when we kill you.”
“I feel like in sadness I am one of all of us who are complicit, in my rage I wanted it to be ‘you’ but in my sadness I know that ‘we’ are all complicit in this,” she says. “And even then, the reaction I got was interesting. Some people still wrote to me saying ‘who is we?’ so they blew past the ‘you’ and said ‘what do you mean our minds, you are not one of us.’”