Our language fundamentally shapes how we view the world, particularly when it comes to power and privilege. This week, we chat about the relationship between language and our cultural perceptions, the different ways that language can be exclusionary, and key steps to removing harmful language from your repertoire.
Reflect: How Does Language Shape Your World?
Language – accents, terminology, tone, etc. – is passed down to us for generations, evolving as our world and culture changes. Differences in language can be as fundamental as reflecting differences in perceptions of time and space (Boroditsky, 2017), to generational difference in how we describe something that is good/we like (e.g., “groovy” vs. “cool”). Our language also reflects the nature of our society and is never neutral to the conditions of our world; this means that power, privilege, and oppression creep into our conversations without us even knowing. While we are not at fault for how we are socialized, we are responsible for understanding the influence of our cultural lens on our language and how this influence can be exclusionary to others. What kind of language did/do you have access to in your personal life? Was that language shaped by your identities? Was it shaped by the identities of people around you? How did the language you had access to influence the language you use now?
Learn: Where Do We See Exclusionary Language?
Exclusionary language appears all over the place. Commonplace slang can have problematic history, such as “no can do” which originally mocked Chinese immigrants (Ocampo & Shahab, n.d.). Some language can be harder to see as exclusionary. Take the term “ladies.” When do you most often call a group of women ladies? While seemingly innocuous, a man calling a group of women “ladies” can be patronizing and condescending (Catlin, 2021); this is especially true when we hear phrases like “lady doctor” when a man in the same position would simply be called “a doctor.” Academic fields often have their own problematic terms, operating either as difficult-to-understand jargon (Paoli, 2021) or evoking derogatory imagery/stereotypes. For example, in IT, terms like “whitelist/blacklist” or “master/slave” describe technical functions but do so by using language embedded in racist history (REN-ISAC, n.d.; Riggins, 2020). Language can also become exclusionary when we don’t respect how people want to be referred. Having your name repeatedly mispronounced, being deadnamed, and being referred to with the incorrect pronouns can be damaging to one’s sense of belonging and mental health (Kohli & Solórzano, 2012; Lieberth, 2020; Rice, 2021), as well as in other areas like one’s career (Banerjee et al., 2017; Whitley et al., 2022). While language is often experienced on a personal level, the greater societal conversation about exclusionary language affects important aspects of life such as policies (Lewis, n.d.) and rights (Miyagi et al., 2021). Fighting to make our language inclusive means that we must challenge our communities to not just avoid excluding others, but to actively include all people.
- Do a language inventory: Because we are often not taught to think critically about the language we use, one of the first ways we can deconstruct exclusionary language is to take an inventory of our language and reflect on the meanings behind our words. During a given day or week, consider the language you and others use, as well as language used in media you consume. What kind of messages are you conveying, explicitly and implicitly? What kinds of images do your words invoke to convey this message? If you said these words in the presences of others, how might they feel?
- Person- vs. identity-first language: Understanding the difference between person-first and identity-first language is a critical step toward being more inclusive. For instance, saying an “autistic child” vs saying a “child with autism”; saying someone “is psychotic” vs “has a psychiatric disability”; or calling someone an “addict” vs saying they “are recovering from a substance use disorder.” Although person-first language is generally considered more inclusive, the most critical aspect when using person-first or identity-first language is adhering to how each specific person would like to be referred, because this is a fundamental aspect of respecting who they are. For example, some in the disabled community have called person-first language into question because it is seen as a move by able-bodied people to distance and further erase the reality of living in an ableist world with a disability (Ravishankar, 2020). To navigate situations where you don’t know how to refer to someone, first spend time listening to how they present themselves to others, particularly around those who have your identities.
- Be a Language Role Model: When we work and learn in spaces where our identities (particularly our privileged identities) are dominant, it’s our duty to model being a good ally. Make the effort to ask for and correctly pronounce someone’s name and pronouns. Point out the exclusionary language you hear from others. Ask them what they think that language really means and challenge them to see what the actual outcomes may be. You don’t need to be confrontational –check in and give them a moment to reflect on why their words could be derogatory. A particularly important part of role-modeling allyship is also showing people how to handle mistakes with grace and an effort to do better next time. For example, if you accidently mispronounce someone’s name or use the wrong pronoun, don’t make the moment about you (White, 2020). Correct yourself, apologize, and move on. If you make a mistake, take personal reflective time afterword to unpack what happened and why. Doing this can help you avoid hurting others and be a tool to help others move through mistakes, too.
Weekly Resource Recommendations
- Book: Language and Social Justice in Practice – This edited volume explores various kinds of exclusionary language and how we can change our thinking on language to be more inclusive.
- Video: Why Inclusive Language is So Important! - Kelly Kitagawa explores the evolution of words and what that means for us to become more inclusive of others.
- Article: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: A Call to Eradicate Non-Inclusive Terms from the Life Sciences – Dr. Khan details the presences of exclusionary language in the life sciences and encourages other academics to seek out new ways to describe their work.
- Podcast: Splunk on Removing Exclusionary Language from its IT Systems (The New Stack: Context) – This episode looks at the way the Splunk team came together to remove exclusionary language from its organization and recommendations for how to avoid it in the future.
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