The words in a language and how they’re used will never be set in stone. Language is inherently tied to culture, and because culture is fluid, so is language. We change how we think and behave as humans, and when new ways of being emerge for us, we need new language to be able to talk about our new ways of being.
Language can either be used to fulfill ideals of egalitarianism, or imply ideas that are sexist, racist, biased, prejudiced, or denigrating. Even well-intentioned people who are loving of all people and places may be using language in a way that doesn’t support their beliefs. This is why we should always be examining our use of language. The use of inclusive language, in particular, acknowledges and values everyone. Inclusive language avoids biases, slang, and expressions that discriminate against groups of people based on their race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Using inclusive language allows us to speak to a broader audience in impartial ways.
There is no segment or industry of society that doesn’t use language, and as societies change, their languages change too. Let’s take the fashion industry, for example. As the importance of using inclusive language grows, brands want to make an effort to be inclusive to all genders, races, and abilities. Though their efforts to be more inclusive are admirable, brands sometimes misuse language in their marketing campaigns, advertising, newsletters, website copy, and even company manuals.
In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger launched an Adaptive clothing line for the “differently abled community.” In this example, the problem is that language like “differently abled” is often used more by able-bodied people than by disabled people themselves, says disability theorist Simi Linton. The use of terms like this can even bring more attention to differences that may already be apparent.
Many companies have recognized their lack of inclusive language and have taken initiative to change how they use words. Some technology companies that use words like “blacklist” and “whitelist” have permanently switched to using “allow list” and “deny list” instead. Non-inclusive language can sometimes hide in unlikely places like user manuals or employee onboarding paperwork, but every change for the better is a step in the right direction.
Speaking about inclusion in general, many companies have had to reevaluate the way they operate over the course of this year. Since the unjust death of George Floyd, many companies worldwide have realized that they’re inherently non-inclusive. Nike released an ad campaign after George Floyd’s death that said, “For Once, Don’t Do It.” Even though their intent with this wordage was to show their support for the Black community, many people thought the campaign was exploitative and that it was created without deep thought regarding the matter. They received a lot of backlash and have since committed to donating $40 million to Black communities over the next four years.
Backlash against companies in response to the aftermath of George Floyd’s death has been hitting companies hard. Some brands have had to completely change the images they use on their products. The companies that own Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Uncle Ben’s rice, and Eskimo Pies ice cream bars will be finding new images that are more inclusive. The unintentional use of non-inclusive language and images is overlooked by many companies and brands, but it’s uplifting to see some of them change their old ways of being when they realize it’s time to do better.
Becoming more inclusive with language may take some time and effort. Changing the way we think, speak, and write is a process that takes consistent attention until it becomes second nature. Here are some words you can use if you want to be as inclusive as possible when you’re speaking, writing, or thinking:
Instead of this
Native American, Indigenous, or First Nation
Person of color
Person with a disability
He, She, Him, or Her
People or Human Beings
Down’s or mentally disabled
Person with Down Syndrome
Person experiencing homelessness
Deaf and Dumb
Person who is deaf
Person who uses a wheelchair
How are you guys?
How are all of you?
Latino or Latina
In addition to the suggestions above, here are some additional guidelines to keep in mind:
These are just some examples of how language has changed in a positive way to be able to describe people in a better way. As time moves on, there are sure to be new adjustments to look out for. Self-education as it relates to the proper use of language is essential if we want to use it for the benefit of all people. The most important thing we can do is try our best and make improvements when we know better.
Jessy Humann lives and writes out of Spokane, Washington. When she's not writing about sustainability and why it's important, she loves to write poetry and do other types of creative writing. Her first children's book comes out next year.
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