Drop the I-Word

The Other “I-Word” – When will “Illegal” go the way of “Illegitimate?”

The New York Times ran a story about the revelation that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s biological father is not the person listed on his birth certificate. This is not necessarily “news,” except for the fact that his high station in the church is unusual for someone who could be described as “illegitimate.”

But you won’t see the word “illegitimate” in the Times article. Other news outlets have used the word in the story or headline, but not the Times.

That’s right, the newspaper that has rejected the Drop the I-Word campaign and won’t change its style manual to stop using “illegal” or “illegal immigrant” to refer to people based on immigration status has declined to use the other “I-Word” word for a news story when describing the head of the Church of England. The Archbishop doesn’t use this word to marginalize himself, and in a respectful turn, neither does the Times

“Illegitimate” is the original “I-Word,” ostensibly used to describe a person’s legal status, but it also contains a degree of stigma or contempt. Along with “illegal immigrant,” these “I-Words” convey a quality of being less than human – an insult that in this case, some news outlets want to be careful not to convey.

These “I-Words” have a legal context, but more importantly, a social and political context. “Illegitimacy” has lost most (but not all) of its power to put people in their place, not just because of changes in the law but because most people and institutions no longer use it. The other I-Word, “illegal immigrant” will eventually lose that power, but it hasn’t yet, which is why there has been a concerted campaign to Drop the I-word.

People like me and the Archbishop are the original “illegals” – because our mothers were not married to our biological fathers. I’ve been called “illegitimate,” even though similar to the Archbishop, my mother’s husband and not my biological father is listed on my birth certificate. Unlike his mother, my mother knew quite well that her husband was not my biological father.

My mother listed her husband on my birth certificate because being labeled “illegitimate” would have made me less in the eyes of the law than my siblings, and she wanted to protect me from that.

“Illegitimacy” here in the US derives from the laws of England, and it was a legal burden that could never be removed. Its second-class legal status was seen as incontrovertible in the U.S. until the 1968 case Levy v Louisiana, where five children were not allowed to sue an institution responsible for the death of their mother (that’s right, they had even lost their legal connection to their own mother) because their status as “illegitimates” meant that they lacked the legal standing to take the case to court.

Lower courts ruled against them, but the ACLU took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the Court:

“We start from the premise that illegitimate children are not ‘nonpersons.’ They are humans, live, and have their being. They are clearly ‘persons’ within the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Nowadays, legitimacy laws in the U.S. are a mishmash, but with more than a third of children in the U.S. born to women who are unmarried, the idea of relegating those children to a lower legal status seems rightfully antiquated. People might have all sorts of opinions about this, but few would argue that people with unmarried parents should be less than others in the eyes of the law.

What was seen as unshakeable a few years before I was born (calling out certain people as “illegitimate”) now seems a bit overly-dramatic. The AP Stylebook has made official as of 2012 that it’s inappropriate to use the word “illegitimate” when discussing children (it’s silent on using it to describe adults.) The AP Stylebook stopped using the word illegal to describe people based on immigration status in 2013.

I can’t speak for the Archbishop, but for me to be born in the circumstances I was, I was born at a good time. I was born in 1969 and the label “filius nullius” (translated as “child of no one”) was not that likely to ever be applied to me, in spite of my mother’s fears and shame. She was concerned at the time of my birth, but by the time she told me the truth when I was 15, she already knew that I was mostly safe from second-class legal status because not only the law but our culture was changing.

Yet I’m also fortunate because I was born in a time of transition: I get to have the knowledge of what it means to have a second-class status that could’ve been — but was not — laid on me. With that knowledge, I can’t sit by and let other people get run over by a different legal status that is supposed to be a target on their back, or an insult. And there millions of people like me who a few decades ago would have been subject to the stigma of one “I-Word,” or would’ve seen that label placed on their children. We have a stake in removing the burden of a different “I-Word” from others.

In the same way that “illegitimacy” has lost its hold on the law and on our societal ranking, calling people “illegal,” “illegal alien,” or “illegal immigrant” will at some point lose its power and will leave common use. You can drop the I-Word now or later.

At some point, “illegal immigrant,” “illegal alien” and “illegal” will join “illegitimate” as words that people use only when they lack compassion, imagination, or a sense of history.



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