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VIEWPOINT Words matter
by David J. Johns

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Words matter, They have the power to heal or to hurt. We should all use them responsibly.

As a kindergarten teacher, I found myself frequently reminding my students, who I also call "my babies," of simple truths that endure over time.

Chief among them: Words have power—use them wisely. With the opposite retort, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," I tried to teach them that words have the power to hurt and heal. I also supported them with ways to be responsible for their actions and the words to which they gave life.

Recent events prove that not everyone learned this lesson—but the best lessons bear repeating.

In case you missed it, comedian/entertainer Kevin Hart announced and then rescinded his invitation to host the upcoming Oscars. At the center of the public discussion was Hart's reason for not hosting. He refused to apologize for homophobic comments and other public displays of insensitivity. Ironically, he ended up offering something of an apology when explaining why he refused to do so.

Nobody won in this situation. Hart lost out on a dream and hard conversations were shut down about intolerance, oppression, and the work required to demonstrate contrition and growth.

I do not want the outcries from the LGBTQ/SGL community and our supporters to be reduced to "oversensitive people demanding meaningless apologies."

Instead, we should use this opportunity to push conversations forward, heal existing wounds, and ensure we can all get free from oppressive language and reflexive postures that enable bigotry.

In a series of personal Instagram posts ( view posts here and here ) regarding Hart, I shared some perspective on demonstrating growth, packaging harmful words and lies as jokes, and the importance of context, and public accountability. Here are some thoughts:

1. When Hart announced that he would no longer host the Oscars, then released comments saying, "I've said who I am now versus who I was then," I wondered how Kevin would demonstrate the growth he's talked about experiencing. There was an opportunity to demonstrate growth and facilitate much needed dialogue.

2. This is NOT about anything Hart said that one time he was being funny, nor is it about how "sensitive" people are making unfounded demands. Hart has a history of saying offensive and mean-spirited things and acting on ignorance. Consider these incidents:

—Who has a cowboys-and Indians-themed kids' birthday party? Hart. So much has been written about how colonization has blamed Native Americans for the genocide they continued to experience. Defending himself, Hart said, "This isn't a racial slur that people are doing and being malicious with. This is a game that's been played for years," Hart also foolishly said you'd be an idiot to think that white people don't already play games like "slave owner and slave," because we should definitely be looking to white people as examples for shit to do." No one can defend ignorance.

—Words matter. Consider how Black girls struggle to accept their brilliance and beauty because they live in an anti-Black society where lies are designed to strip them of their super powers. These harmful lies are packaged as "jokes" in far too many ways. Now remember how Hart talked about Black women in extremely problematic ways before he broke into mainstream fame: "Light-skinned women usually have better credit than dark-skinned women...broke a** dark h*** LOL," Hart posted in 2010.

3. The importance of this opportunity to create a meaningful dialogue about harmful words should not be drowned out by requests for an apology. For me, this isn't about an apology. It's about taking advantage of opportunities to increase competence in meaningful and measurable ways.

4. Context matters. As a Black man in America, it is vexing to see another brother forced, compelled or cajoled into requests made by white people in positions of power. I do NOT think it was appropriate that the Oscar producers demanded an apology. I DO believe the producers and Kevin should have identified meaningful ways to facilitate conversations rather than shutting them down.

5. Nobody wins when we shut down or silence people. As someone personally aware of how language is used to trigger and terrorize, I know there is so much more to do with regards to encouraging better dialogues. No one knows everything. We all make mistakes. We should all be supported in learning and growing.

6. On public accountability: Celebrities, public figures, really anyone with a platform offers themselves up to be celebrated and criticized as a result of their words and actions. Regardless of time frame, the same question will be asked and answered.

I hope we can all learn from this and grow towards better understanding rather than simply naming the offense. To Hart: You don't get to be tired of apologizing, especially when your actions suggest that you were not sincere.

As my friend, comedian Amanda Seales, reminded me, every tier you elevate to you will have to re-establish boundaries and replenish apologies.

David J. Johns is executive director of The National Black Justice Coalition, a civil-rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving ( LGBTQ/SGL ) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS.

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