January 17, 2018
As champions of higher education, both practitioners and academics, we want there to be places where people feel they can be both their best selves and seek challenging experiences for growth and personal development. In many ways, we continue to undermine ourselves by using language to segment and silo one another in the name of inclusion and community-building.
We have formalized and intellectualized the conversation around identity, intersectionality, and the systems within which they operate to the extent that it has become inaccessible to folks without the same educational privilege as scholars and administrators. This elevates the language to a condescending and, sometimes, intangible place. Those without a grasp on the academy can feel disenfranchised and we lose the well-intentioned conversation to politicization. There is a time and place for the study and research of identity and inclusion, but to overcomplicate it can be detrimental to our impact.
Language has the ability to uplift, divide, isolate, and unite. It can also pull us apart at our intersections. The words we use can reinforce otherness in a variety of ways. When words are used as weapons, they persist as a cancer throughout the community. Sticks and stones may break bones, but the damage words can cause will last a lifetime. We have the power to be more present in how we use our words. We can choose instead to mend the broken-hearted and uplift the disenfranchised.
This is not a matter of political correctness. It is inclusive language, used as a tool to affirming all humans in the dignity to which they are entitled. Inclusive language allows for the dignity of each individual to enter a space in its fullest form. It is not new to consider the context within which one was raised or educated to be part of the intersectionality of their identities. This socialization affects where and how they operate now. Narrow exposure to only homogeneous communities requires education outside of one’s comfort zone. Compassionate understanding of this has the ability to build bridges and educate, but that compassion is only so forgiving. It cannot permit ignorance to the point of causing pain.
There is no place for division in higher education—it undermines the desired outcomes we have for students. As we seek to acknowledge and address this, we must also consider the effect on professionals themselves. Challenging one another is needed. The ability to critically think and engage in discourse is deeply needed, but there’s a way to do this without isolating others. Once dissent becomes about the worthiness of a person based on their marginalized identities, we lose credibility. The dehumanization of others is not effective. It is the work of those with dominant group identities to illicit empathic understanding from peers. When this burden is placed on those with marginalized identities, those individuals are stripped of their intersectionality and become singularly identifiable.
For women especially, we must realize that our collective experience is not the only experience. There are many ways our experiences overlap, but it is layered in the multiple dimensions of our identities. Too many times we allow difference to threaten us, to prey on our fears, and the resulting language we choose to use interferes with the pursuit of our objectives. It belittles and divides. We can challenge systems by first checking our own language, so we can demonstrate congruence in words and actions on all levels of commitment to advocacy and inclusion. We all have biases, both overt and implicit, but until we own and address these biases, and seek to make changes to how we connect with and create harmony with others, we won’t be able to contribute to the larger sociopolitical world as it has evolved in a positive way.
Many people with dominant identities (i.e. heterosexual, white, Christian, etc.) do not know what it is like to feel isolated by language that takes aim at an individual identity or calls into question whether they will encounter acceptance or resistance when showing up as their authentic and honest selves.
Everyone has experienced a moment where they assumed something about someone and quickly, and probably not so gracefully, had to backtrack their statements. When this occurs over relationship advice or food recommendations, it is not as damaging as when it is about someone’s identity. In that case, it can affect how some people perceive their worth in a place where they are supposed to thrive the most. One way inclusion is undermined is by the words used when assumptions are made. Assumptions made inaccurately isolate people. This is why it is critical to utilize open-ended language.
Furthermore, recognizing the benefits of a diverse team or group is the means to progress and effectiveness. Without visibility by way of inclusive language, some become cautious about how to operate or who to confide in. Feeling the pressure of an atmosphere where some identities are swept under the rug is burdensome. The mental and emotional labor it takes to negotiate this impedes the success of staff, students, and institutions at large.
While this can be a tenuous process, there has to be room for learning rather than shaming. The goal is to find the shared humanity while embracing differences. The learning process is about capacity-building, growth, and enrichment by way of exposure to differences. It is vital for people to feel safe to the extent that they can be themselves without persecution.
Growth necessitates risk. Marginalizing individuals and groups into singular identity groups threatens the success of our students and colleagues. A commitment to accountability in language is a commitment to making changes where everyone can participate in order to create more inclusive and robust communities.
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