The Power of Words: The Language Used to Describe People of Color in Activism

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center intern, MJ Jalloh-Jamboria


This semester I’ve had the privilege of taking Dr. Tammy Henderson’s ‘Black Feminist Thought’ class. I recommend the class to anyone interested in learning the origins and history of black feminism, the claim of black feminist intellect and the way black feminist activism pertains to People of Color (POC) everywhere. Before the semester started, I was super confident that I would do amazing in the class. I didn’t think it would be an easy ‘A’ but I was naive enough to think that I knew enough about black feminist thought, that I could cruise by in the class. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong! We’re only halfway through the semester but a recent experience with a previous high school teacher reminded me of one of the discussions we had in class.

Before continuing, I’d like to examine the word, “militant.” It’s defined as “combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.”

Earlier this month I took a trip to visit my favorite teacher at my alma mater, a small high school in Montgomery County, Maryland. Ms. J took one look at my t-shirt (a black shirt with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” written in large multi-colored letters), and immediately we launched into a conversation on the movement and the events which led to the birth of the slogan. I was excited to tell Ms.J about my involvement in local DC and Baltimore activist groups but instead, after about 20 minutes of arguing she ended the conversation with, “Well that is why I simply cannot fully support the black lives matter movement. Goodness MJ, I don’t remember you being this militant.”

At first, I was unsure if her use of the word ‘militant’ was used as a compliment or an insult. Today, I proudly claimed militant as an adjective that accurately describes me. I am more than honored to be equated with activists like Angela Davis and Malcolm X (who are seen as leaders of black militance movements of the 60s and 70s). However in that moment, I realized her use of the word was probably used to discourage me from continuing on with the conversation. I stayed quiet and let the topic go. I soon realized why Ms. J used ‘militant’ to describe my passion.

Whether she meant to or not, Ms. J’s use of the word suddenly made me self-conscious enough to change the topic of our discussion, move on and stay quiet and polite. For the remainder of the day, I was over-aware of the way I shared the specifics of my life with other teachers. I stayed quiet, for fear of sounding like the angry-black-person who was only concerned with oppression and feminism and screaming from a soap box. I stayed quiet because I didn’t want to be read as aggressive. I didn’t want my teachers to feel like I was blaming them in any way (because of their race or other factors) and I especially didn’t want to sound pedantic.

Ms.J’s dismissal of my passion as militance, felt parallel to the way the word ‘terrorist’ was thrown in face of activist movements. For example, think of how quickly we associate violence with Malcolm X. Never forget that the Black Panther’s Party was considered a terrorist group. We’ve been taught that his activist ideology was deep rooted in violence. People forget that his life, and the era in which he lived, was stained with violent acts towards him, his family (his father was killed by white supremacists) and communities of POC everywhere. We fail to examine the systems which pushed him, and fellow activists, to actions which were/are deemed militant and violent. More so, we fail to retell history correctly. X encouraged communities of color to defend themselves against white supremacy “by any means necessary.” I am less than surprised that his activism and ideology (and those of other activists of color) was equated with violence and militance.

From lessons learned in Dr. Henderson’s class and beyond, I understand that militant and violent have always been adjectives associated with POC. Activists (and others who spoke up about the oppressions they faced) have been met with hatred, violence and never ending streams of ignorance. In their strides for equality and equity, POC have been written off whenever they’ve decided to mobilize for change. Accounts of lived experiences from POC are ignored, taken for game and depoliticized. The irony lies in the response of those who then discourage their sense of urgency and/or passion and mistake it for aggression. While anger and other emotions are expected of those who have faced oppression, we instead censor our emotions and attitude towards certain topics so we don’t offend people.

While youthful passion for social justice is extremely warranted, some see it as unnecessary and childish. My excitement for activism shouldn’t be seen as militant or violent. Instead my need for justice should be celebrated and reciprocated! POC shouldn’t be afraid of or turned off to speaking about injustices for fear of seeming aggressive. We should be welcomed with platforms to speak of our experiences with injustice and work together to start revolutions and combat injustice. (Haha, pun intended!)

I’m about to get super cheesy on y’all, so bear with me. One of my favorite quotes is from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: 

Picture description: “Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word “black.” It’s always something degrading, low, and sinister. Look at the word “white.” It’s always something pure, high, clean. Well, I wanna get the language right tonight.”

Similar to MLK, I suppose I also want to get the language right and change the rhetoric. As activists of color and a larger black community, why don’t we change the way words such as militant, anger, aggression and violent are used against us. Let’s reclaim the words so often used to describe us! When someone dismisses us because of our emotions, ask them why they aren’t emotional as well! When discouraged from acts of activism, persevere by any means necessary! When faced with systems of oppression, assemble an army to dismantle every one of those systems!


This post is the first of a series on Militance. Stay tuned for some examples of Militant Women to be celebrated over the next couple of weeks!



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