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  • Sandra Grandsoult

Inclusive Language: What if I $@*&!# it up?

In a past life, I worked for a religious nonprofit where, due to certain official and unofficial hierarchies, I was most often the only woman working with a group of men. Because I knew my own team really well—they were my friends—I wasn’t usually uncomfortable in these situations (ideological issues aside). But when we collaborated with groups from partner organizations, the men from these organizations sometimes struggled to understand how to relate to me. Many were overly polite and solicitous, afraid of slighting me in any way, while a few blatantly ignored me, even going so far as to address the room as “my brothers.” Two words very efficiently erased me from the room and cut me from the conversation.

Contrast this with the president of an organization which had granted my nonprofit a large sum of money to start a program. He had been raised by a mother who was an English teacher and had taught him the power of words to shape perception, and therefore, reality. In his own organization, he had made it a point to craft very careful language in all communications. Cultural expectations followed that communication: inclusion, affirmation, and unity.

Language plays explicitly into some of the vital signs we at Equitas use to measure an organization’s current stage of development along their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) path. Our team recently discussed this New York Times piece describing various struggles people face with inclusive language. The anxiety of getting it wrong. The exhaustion of always feeling a step or two behind. The frustration of watching much effort go into “correct labels” but no follow-up action to rectify injustice. The culture wars that seem based on little else than fear.

So considering its importance and its complexity, how should we treat inclusive language, particularly if your organization is newly exploring it? Four quick suggestions:

The importance of including others far outweighs the potential pitfalls of causing offense or personal embarrassment. As Jo Yurcaba wrote for Rewire, “The language we use indicates who we value. It indicates whose needs we’re willing to meet and who we’re willing to see.”

If you have never thought twice about your gender—you are male or female—you may not understand the magnitude of adding other options to a registration form. But to the nonbinary person who has felt invisible their whole life, one simple new line item communicates, “We see you; you belong,” and the impact of this simple acknowledgement is hard to verbalize.

I think also of when the United States Census added the “two or more races” (now “multiracial”) self-report option in 2010; in 2020, this grouping saw a 276% increase in ten years. That’s a lot of people newly coming into view and who can now be better understood.

Language is fluid and ever-changing. It mirrors human culture and society, which is also fluid and ever-changing. Words and phrases like social distancing, superspreader, and flattening the curve didn’t mean anything to me in 2019. Now I (and you) know exactly what they refer to. Words also change meaning; check out this short list from the BBC’s Bitesize (four out of five were new to me!).

Inclusive language will change over time. Don’t fear this or let it frustrate you. You can learn, you will learn, and you can even teach others.

Listen to the experiences of those different from you. You are not them, and therefore, you don’t understand. All you can do is listen and believe them.

Another way language is powerful is in how it can confer traits and even subtly assign responsibility. Think of the difference between talking about “the homeless of Miami”—which likely elicits an unflattering image of a mass of people lumped together with certain characteristics informed by the bias of the listener—and “those living homeless in Miami”—which now sounds more like a finite social or economic state affecting individuals.

Change the language from “slave” to “enslaved person,” and you have transformed slavery from an identity to an action perpetrated; the responsible party—the one who has enslaved someone else—becomes visible and culpable with a simple rewording.

There are subtle dynamics to language that you may not pick up unless you are on the receiving end. If someone takes the time and risk to highlight these dynamics for you, listen.

The practice of inclusive language must be communicated well and often. This blog post from Deloitte and this piece from Forbes provide some great examples.

Remember that inclusive language is one piece of the larger puzzle of DEI strategy. Words must be accompanied by measurable action. For more on vital signs and our Equity Navigator, stay tuned—or reach out to us.


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