Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The 'i-word' is un-American

By Sally Kohn
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 1521 GMT (2321 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The film "Documented" airs 9 p.m. ET Saturday, July 5, on CNN
  • Sally Kohn: The n-word and f-word are considered bad, but what about "illegals?"
  • Kohn: Some words reflect our dehumanizing attitude toward marginalized people
  • She says despite heated debates over immigration, people should have compassion

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. The film "Documented" airs on Saturday, July 5 at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.

This article contains strong language in quotes that could be offensive to some readers.

(CNN) -- During the civil rights era, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was asked by a supporter why he was fixated on the politics of race. Wallace replied, "You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*ggers, and they stomped the floor."

In the 1980s, during the rise of the gay rights movement, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms accused a political opponent for supporting "f*ggots, perverts [and] sexual deviates of this nation."

Today, opponents of immigration reform attack undocumented immigrants as "illegal immigrants." Even worse, like anti-immigration extremists, some prominent elected officials use the term "illegals." Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, said, "I urge all Mainers to tell your city councilors and selectmen to stop handing out your money to illegals."

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Not the same thing? Of course it is.

Once upon a time, the n-word and f-word were utterly acceptable terminology in undermining not only the basic rights but basic humanity of black people and gay people. That those terms seem radically inappropriate and out of step with mainstream culture now is only because social movements and legal and political changes have shifted the landscape. But make no mistake about it, words matter, not only in reflecting certain dehumanizing attitudes toward historically marginalized groups but in actively perpetuating and rationalizing that dehumanization.

Even now, as some people go to courts to suppress the ability of women to make decisions about their own bodies and contraceptive choices, women who stand up for reproductive freedom are being called "sluts" and "whores."

Recently, I watched the stunning film, "Documented," on CNN and posted my reactions on Twitter. The responses I got were mostly positive but some conservatives took issue with me.

What should U.S. do with undocumented kids?
Living illegally in the U.S.

For instance, someone tweeted at me: "How about you donate 100% of your $ to help poor American children & not illegals" -- as though American kids are worthy and deserving and undocumented immigrant kids are not.

'I didn't know I was undocumented'

Another tweeted: "Stop disease from coming into the US. Build the wall!" -- again, not a humane reaction but an us-versus-them mindset that reduces immigrants to a public health threat.

When I tweeted that I was "consistently troubled by [the] number of people who seem to feel more compassion toward puppies on the Internet than undocumented humans," among the many blistering replies I received was, "Do the internet puppies have scabies...?" Other responses compared undocumented immigrants to "invaders" and "child abusers."

Come on, people.

Is it not possible to oppose immigrant rights without resorting to attacking immigrants as human beings? The intensity of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is stunning. Even if you don't support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, can't you find some compassion for them as human beings who live on the same planet?

After all, whether you think our immigration laws are properly functioning or not, the forces of economic hardship and violence that push people to leave their home countries and the promise of a better future in America that pulls people here are the same forces that pushed and pulled on many of our ancestors.

Protesters block buses carrying undocumented immigrants in California

Plus we know that American industries that rely on low-wage workers and actively lure undocumented immigrants to our country sometimes offer promises of official paperwork that never materialize.

The organization Race Forward has a campaign to get media organizations to "Drop The I-Word" in their reporting about immigration. So far, the campaign has succeeded in getting the Associated Press, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and many other outlets to stop using the word. But the pressure continues on The New York Times, The Washington Post and radio and television outlets. And the campaign around media usage is just one step toward influencing and ultimately ending the use of the word "illegal" by everyone in America.

Vargas: Undocumented and hiding in plain sight

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

The history of the United States that anti-immigration activists profess to defend is one perpetually defined by inclusion rather than exclusion. Our notion of our nation expanded over time to include black people and women and gay people and others who were most marginalized previously.

As we celebrate the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act 50 years ago this month, we're reminded of protests in the lead up to that moment in which black men carried signs that simply read, "I AM A MAN." And as we look back on the 45th anniversary of the landmark gay liberation protests set off at the Stonewall Bar in New York, we remember protests where gay men and lesbians carried signs that simply said, "GAY IS GOOD."

Today, most people find the n-word and the f-word incredibly offensive. Let's hope that most if not all people will feel the same way about the words "illegals" and "illegal immigrants" in the not too distant future.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT