Incorporating Inclusive Language

Our language fundamentally shapes how we view the world, particularly when it comes to power and privilege. This week, we discuss the relationship between language and our cultural views, the different ways 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 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,1 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 in 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. 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.2 Other language can be harder to identify. Take the term “ladies.” When do a group of women most often get called “ladies”? While seemingly innocuous, a man calling a group of women “ladies” can be patronizing and condescending3; this is especially true when we hear phrases like “lady doctor” when a man would simply be called “a doctor.” Academic fields often have their own problematic terms, operating either as difficult-to-understand jargon4 or evoking derogatory imagery/stereotypes. In IT, terms like “whitelist/blacklist” or “master/slave” describe technical functions but do so by using language embedded in racist history.6, 7 Language also becomes exclusionary when we don’t respect how people want to be referred. Having your name repeatedly mispronounced, being deadnamed, and the use of incorrect pronouns can be damaging to one’s sense of belonging and mental health,8, 9, 10 as well as stifling one’s career.11, 12 While language is often experienced on a personal level, the greater societal conversation about exclusionary language affects important things such as policies13 and rights.14.

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