Over the past few months, there have been several articles written and discussions at webinars I have attended on the words “slavery” and “trafficking.”
It is common in the anti-trafficking field (either in campaigns or in policy) to link colonial slavery with human trafficking by reference to “modern slavery.”
These terms have been used by several organizations and individuals who were unaware of the deeper meaning of this terminology with regard to the victims. “Technical definitions of ‘slavery’ and ‘human trafficking,’ as well as related concepts like forced labor, child labor and bonded labor differ slightly legally, but there are enormous overlaps between them. Many of these terms are commonly used interchangeably, as ultimately they all involve practices that exploit or abuse someone physically or psychologically for profit.”
We must place ourselves here in the historical American context and see if slavery has indeed ended. Another point is that historical slavery was legal, certainly inhuman but legal, human trafficking is not. In this same context slavery is based on race, exploitation is based in rape culture, abuse, sexism.
Unfortunately, while “slavery” is eye grabbing and makes awareness easy, it paints a problematic picture of human trafficking. Human trafficking and historical slavery in the U.S. have similarities, however, framing like this is troubling as they are not the same (National Survivor Network, 2019).
This language minimizes historical enslavement of African people and the multi-generational trauma and resulting impact. It can also be harmful to survivors, as it paints an inaccurate picture of many trafficking experiences.
It should be noted that now, chattel slavery and the slave trade are now illegal in every country in the world and under international law (Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). However, estimates say there are more people trapped in conditions of modern slavery today than there were slaves, even when slavery was legal.
Survivors to whom I spoke of human trafficking do not connect their experiences with “slavery” and certainly would not identify as “slaves.” We can recognize that other survivors may identify with this term and we can acknowledge their individual right to self-identify. We also are aware that using this terminology may make it harder for some who have been trafficked to recognize and acknowledge the exploitation perpetrated against them. As advocates, we cannot cease to be vocal and address the reality that victims of trafficking in the United States are disproportionately people of color.
In the context, we are living today including the historical context we understand that associating the crime of human trafficking with chattel slavery can be harmful for African American. Slavery and human trafficking are not equal experiences; to use the same term “slavery” to describe two separate but equally brutal injustices may not be accurate. There is a glaring discrepancy between the way powers have addressed slavery in the past and present and we need to recognize the ways nations have exploited and oppressed people of color.
This reflection led me to a moment of pause and self-reflection and allowed me to realize the power of words. Why do I use this language? Who is it benefitting? And more importantly, who is it harming?