How Our Words Can Dramatically Change A Young Girl's Life

Photo: Getty Images.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
Growing up, I attended a boarding school that wasn’t particularly diverse. One day after class, a fellow student — a white male — approached me and said, “You’re Black, you’re a woman, and you come from the South Bronx. Isn’t that like having three strikes against you?”
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My response: “If those are three strikes, technically, I would be out. If that is the case, why am I top of my class, captain of the cross-country team, and out-performing most people here? I wouldn’t consider those strikes.” It stunned me that my fellow classmate assumed that the very nature of who I was — a Black woman from the South Bronx — meant that I was already out of the game, even before I had a chance to come up to bat.
This experience shaped my belief in the power of words. If unchecked, negative and hurtful words can reinforce stereotypes and influence our identity — and our success — in the classroom, in the workforce, and in life.
Gender bias continues to confront girls and women — and even more so women of color — in all facets of society, as this Harvard study and many others have confirmed. Society echoes very specific ideas and stereotypes about what it means to be Black, low-income, and a woman. My peer viewed these attributes as liabilities. But growing up, it never crossed my mind to view my gender, the color of my skin, or my zip code as a weakness or roadblock to achievement.

You’re Black, you’re a woman, and you come from the South Bronx. Isn’t that like having three strikes against you?

In fact, it was quite the opposite. I grew up in a home where my mother and grandmother gave me clear affirmation of who I was and the level of excellence that was required of me, not only as a woman but as a Black woman. I always saw these characteristics as some of my greatest strengths, but many people do not see the world as I do. And all too often, the traditionally disenfranchised members of society are the targets of hurtful, highly charged words and characterizations that erode confidence and undermine opportunity.
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At United Way of New York City, we know the impact words have on a person’s life — for better or worse — which is why we are committed to ensuring low-income children receive access to the tools and supports they need to reach their full potential through our ReadNYC program. We know that by age 3, children living in economically challenged neighborhoods are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers, which sets them back academically and makes the road ahead that much more challenging. It is up to us to help close that gap and ensure the millions of words these children hear are positive, inspirational, and aspirational.

By age 3, children living in economically challenged neighborhoods are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.

To this end, our leaders, parents, and educators have critical roles to play in lifting up our girls, young women, and minorities with the words they speak, the actions they take, and the behavior they model.
Our leaders — civic, business, academic, community, and faith — have a moral and civic responsibility to create a discourse that promotes equality, respect, and compassion toward women and individuals of all walks of life. Their tone sets the standard of what we as society deem acceptable, thus strongly influencing the next generation.
In the classroom, educators and instructional leaders must build an equity mindset, which is a fundamental belief and understanding that every child can be successful. Many low-income children walk into classrooms where there is an inherent bias against them, suggesting they can’t learn. A study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that girls are also negatively impacted by biases, and that gender stereotypes negatively affect girls’ math grades and positively affect boys’ grades.
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At home, we must ensure our sons understand and respect the strength, power, and abilities of women. I have three boys. They have a strong mother and are surrounded by strong women in their family. Despite this, I found my sons believed they were stronger — because of what society is telling them about men versus women. As fathers and mothers, we have a responsibility to convey an unwavering message that women and girls are equal in ability, skill, and strength. To do what is right by our daughters and future generations of women, we need to raise our sons to see the infinite potential in everyone, women no different than men.
We can never underestimate the power of words. While they can break down barriers, uplift, and inspire, they also have the ability to demean and marginalize. The values we instill and the words we choose have a lasting impact on the next generation. Imagine if, as a society, we took an approach that empowered, respected, and celebrated women — including women of color and women from low-income neighborhoods.
In that vision, everyone would have a turn at bat. Everyone would experience a more level playing field, and would hear words of encouragement coming from the crowd.
Sheena Wright is president and CEO of United Way of New York City.
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