Council Member Adrienne Adams represents District 28 in Queens. // Photo courtesy of Adrienne Adams

ADAMS: ‘Food Swamps’ and the Danger of Dehumanizing Language

By Council Member Adrienne Adams

An area that deserves serious attention is the proliferation of dehumanizing language popping up in public discourse. We must actively call out, protest, and reject any rhetoric that reduces individuals or communities of people to anything less than human beings.

The recent report by Public Health Solutions that deems parts of Queens “food swamps,” or neighborhoods where healthy food options are outnumbered by fast food and junk food retailers, is dehumanizing to the people of these communities.

The term “food swamp” is the kind of language that cannot be dismissed as a harmless figure of speech. It is dehumanizing and corrodes our capacity for empathy and compassion. The concept of dehumanization—considering another person less human than you—is an ancient one. It’s been used to explain and justify actions of one group towards another throughout history, stripping vulnerable groups of their humanity.

The tendency to dehumanize individuals, lumping them into groups, comparing them to malicious nonhuman threats has become far too prevalent. This is all about degrees— the language we use for and about each other can seem harmless on one level. But our language reflects patterns of thinking and creates categories of us versus them polarization.

What the word “swamp” does, in effect, is limit the community’s personhood to a single attribute: dump. It denies the human beings of our community the complexity we should all be afforded.

When the word “swamp” is used to describe a community, we neglect the fact that the individuals have aspirations, motivations, and are comprised of families. Deeming a community a “swamp” sends a very clear message: You are less than.

Language will always be an essential element in the struggle for understanding among people. The words and phrases we use to describe a community of people reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included. There is an important connection between language and racialization and we’ve got to stop playing the race game and make a play instead for the dignity of all people.

Council Member Adrienne Adams represents District 28 in Southeast Queens. The district includes Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Rochdale Village and South Ozone Park.

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