The legacy of racism in the U.S. is in the conversation a lot these days. Controversy over display of the Confederate flag, Mt. McKinley being renamed to Denali, and more recently, a revelation from Vocative of hundreds of racist place names around the country plus the news that Princeton University is considering student calls for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from its place of honor due to his racist past.

Place names tell a story of history: who founded a city, what significant person walked along a street, what group of people honored the land. But what about places like Squaw Tits? Yes, it is a federally recognized name and, according to Vocative, only one of hundreds of place names that were cross checked in The Racial Slur Database. Though many offensive names have been long removed,  titles like Wetback Tank, Dead Injun Creek, and Dead Negro Hollow persist.

In changing the name of the mountain, President Obama honored the people who called Denali their home long before European discovery; isn’t it time we make more changes? But it isn’t that easy. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will rarely initiate a name alteration, wishing to consider historical context and conserve legacy. Any person or organization can request a name change as long as you propose a new name, one that is significant to the location. Perhaps a push from the public will spur some movement.

A student walk-out which became a sit-in at Princeton has brought to light the racist past of a U.S. President whose name appears on buildings and image on a prominent mural. Assigning contemporary moral judgments to people in the past can be tricky and there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Do the good deeds outweigh the bad? Does a person in power merit more or less scrutiny than others? Whether we like it or not, the time has come to consider these questions.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

We chant these words as children to protect our feelings from teasing but the fact remains that words can hurt us. Language is ingrained in us as human beings and represents so much more than a way to delineate a place or object or emotion. Categories carry history, judgment, subjective perceptions. Representations mean different things to different people and individuals, history, and context give symbols different meanings. The current controversies over names and symbols are bringing out a wide array of ideas and feelings. But there are overarching meanings in a culture that can’t be ignored. And whatever a word or object means to someone personally, the message it sends to others must be acknowledged.

A name worthy for history

In a positive move, an intersection in San Pedro, California will be named to honor the first black principal dancer for The American Ballet Theater. Misty Copeland Square is a wonderful win for history and that’s just the kind of story we want our places to tell to the future.