linguistic anthropology

On terms for people

This post continues the thoughts explored in Why Language Matters.


Let me be clear. I don’t think that conscientious use of language alone is going to transform the world into a perfectly fair place. But it’s not just a detail, either.

Language about people and groups affects public opinion and policies. Using the word gay as opposed to homosexual translates into a difference of around 15% more positive opinion in polls [source]. Similarly, referring to marriage equality as opposed to gay marriage means a nearly 10% jump [source]. That’s a real difference when laws are formed by popular referendum, and it also translates into legislative influence and thus policy changes.

How can we use language consciously?

Our language use may undermine our best intentions.

Here’s an example: I once sat through a long meeting in which a colleague ended an otherwise-excellent presentation on sexual-assault prevention by saying, “We need to help people be less vulnerable.”

This wording focused on helping victims, or would-be victims, avoid rape. In so doing, it also suggested that vulnerability was somehow victims’ fault.

After that meeting, another colleague and I spent some time talking to this person about language and agency. “If you want rapists to be held accountable,” we said, “and we know that you do, it’s important to talk about it in a way that holds them accountable.” (For more on why it matters, see Susan Ehrlich’s excellent Representing Rape.)

We make claims about responsibility through language. We can think through those claims and ensure they’re the ones we want to make.

We stereotype, discriminate, and exclude through language. We can be more inclusive through language as well.

If we’re conscious of the larger patterns, we can work to counteract them. We can be mindful of who we call by which title. We can talk about people, and groups of people, in ways that are deliberate.

Finding the Right Terms

There are dozens of style sheets and guides out there that aim to make language more inclusive.

But it’s not as simple as finding the “right” terms to talk about people. Yes, there are some terms that will always be offensive, but in general, such terms are a constant work-in-progress.

It’s likely that in 10 or 20 years we’ll be horrified that we ever said some of the things we now say frequently. When I was a kid, Oriental was the a commonly used term. But Asia is only Eastern from a European perspective, and we now use Asian instead. For a long time, retarded was in vogue; currently, developmentally disabled is preferred.

The truth is that this sort of change is happening around us all the time. Facebook completely changed their gender identity options in 2014. Ten years ago, many people used illegal immigrant without a second thought. As I write this, there is a major public awareness campaign to shift to undocumented instead, and a number of national newspapers have changed their stylesheets in response.

It’s not just the terms; the groups themselves are always constructed. That is, language categories are social inventions, not natural ones. When my father was a little boy, White was a much smaller category than it is today. Eastern European people, Italian people, Irish people, and Jewish people were all excluded from Whiteness; in 2015, we usually classify all of these groups as White. (Note: not all Jewish people are White or identify as such, but it wasn’t so long ago that Jewish people were considered categorically not White.) In fact, one major advantage of White people and Black people over African-Americans and Euro-Americans is that it doesn’t suggest that there’s some sort of natural (geographic) basis to the groups.

Since static lists of terms are doomed to become outdated, here are some issues to consider:

1. What do the individuals in question prefer?

Some individuals are very vocal about their preferred terms. Use those.

But sometimes that’s not the case, or sometimes members of a group have different preferences. Here are further issues to take into account:

2. Who is or isn’t included?

Think about Black and African-American. If we think about the technical meaning of the words, the child of White South African immigrants is African-American but not Black, and the child of Caribbean immigrants is Black but not African-American. African-American also emphasizes American, and recent immigrants to the U.S. may not identify with it. In fact, recent immigrants might not identify with either term. And if you use African-American to refer to people outside the United States because you think it’s less offensive, you end up sounding like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Many people choose to use the term Black to highlight the fact that the experience of discrimination and race is wider than just the U.S., and that it has more to do with appearance than national origins. Meanwhile, people of color is a much more inclusive term — but it can also be used to obfuscate some experiences that are specifically Black and don’t affect Latin@s and Asians.

What about Latin@ and HispanicHispanic refers specifically to Spanish speakers or people whose origins are in countries that are majority Spanish-speaking. Meanwhile, Latin@ includes anyone from Latin America or with origins there. Do we mean to include people from Spain? And what about Brazilians? Furthermore, most members of this group identify themselves by their family’s country of origin rather than either term.

3. How does the term frame the group in question?

I’ve talked about ladygirlfemale, and woman. What about manboydude, and guy?

What’s the difference between illegal immigrant and undocumented worker? What about disableddifferently abledperson with disabilities, and special needs?

One general guideline is to emphasize our common humanity by using language that centers people rather than traits or situations. Following this guideline, we’d say wheelchair users rather than wheelchair-boundyoung people rather than youths, and people of color rather than colored people.

4. How does the term construct non-members of the group?

When a group that’s opposed to abortion styles itself pro-life, it’s also constructing the identity of its opposition: as anti-life. And nobody wants to be against life. That’s one of the reasons that supporters of abortion rights refer to their opponents as anti-abortion or anti-choice.

Politicians frequently talk about White, middle-class, rural people as the real Americans. What does that say about the rest of us? In reality, more than half of the U.S. population lives in cities. This exclusive category of real Americans doesn’t even include the majority of Americans!

Or think about the recent uproar at Yale. In brief, the administration sent an email to the student body to remind students that Halloween costumes — like blackface or mock Native American clothing — can be offensive. The email urged students to have empathy towards their peers. A faculty member then sent a second email arguing that college students should have room to be obnoxious. Many students were appalled by what they saw as a dismissal that added fuel to the fire of racist incidents on campus.

In one incredible response, a student writes: “Accordingly, when you address the student body in your e-mails, I must ask whom ‘yourselves’ refers to—surely, it does not reflect the Yalies of color who have clamored against these offensive costumes year after year. I daresay that you have shown your hand: when you claim that this call for racial competence does not come from Yale students, it becomes rather obvious to me whom you perceive as Yale’s student body, and whom you regard as outsiders.”


I wish I could claim that these principles will fix everything that’s wrong with the world.

Spoiler: they won’t. They probably won’t even keep you from offending people sometimes.

What they may do, however, is help you think critically about how we talk about ourselves and others in ways that include or exclude, acknowledge or dismiss. Consider them guidelines to connect in an effort to understand each other, rather than let difficult discussions divide us.

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