The Language of Diversity

The Language of Diversity
The language of diversity is an evolving one that requires awareness, understanding and skill much in the same way as other areas of diversity competencies. Language provides a means for communication among and between individuals and groups. Language serves as a vehicle for expressing thoughts and feelings. And when it comes to diversity, language can be a bridge for building relationships, or a tool for creating and maintaining divisions across differences. Having a common language for talking about and across difference is essential for breaking down divisions and working towards achieving understanding and partnership. In developing a common language around diversity it is important that language be affirming and not about creating blame, guilt or pity.

Historically our challenge with language as it relates to diversity is that it has often been used as a tool of oppression for the express purpose of establishing and perpetuating systems of dominance and hierarchies between and among groups. As a result, language has in many instances throughout our society’s history, served to advance the status of certain groups while relegating other groups to a status of inferiority. Early examples of the use of language for this purpose includes the designation of Native Americans as “savages” and “primitive” in contrast to European settlers as “civilized”; the use of the term “African slaves” to passively describe an inhumane system of forced bondage that “enslaved” the free people of Africa; diminishing the status of adult women through the active use of the term “girl”; the use of the term “America” to specifically refer to the United States as opposed to the whole Western Hemisphere that makes up America. When used in this manner, language has systematically helped to minimize and vilify certain groups and justify subsequent patterns of exclusion, mistreatment and exploitation.

While our intentions in the use of language when interacting with or referencing groups may not be as ill-spirited and biased as the examples given above, when we are not conscious of the power of words and labels, our impact can be just as detrimental. For example, when we hear individuals struggle with finding the right terminology for referencing particular groups of people (i.e. African Americans, gay and lesbian, differently abled, etc), they routinely express their frustration by stating that the people from these groups… “can’t make up their minds about what they want to be called” or that they need to “figure out a name once and for all”. Unfortunately, more often than not, the individuals demanding that these groups “make up their mind” are not members of these groups and are usually in a position of relevant dominant status. While the desire of these individuals to achieve clarity in these instances is well intentioned, their behaviors reflect an assumed position of superiority. This false sense of superiority becomes even more pronounced when these individuals take it upon themselves to define the group without input from that group. As a result, members of these groups lose their right to define and name themselves on their own terms.

Being aware of the power of our language is not about being politically correct. It is about treating people with respect and dignity and increasing awareness. In an article entitled, “Words are potent weapons for all causes, good or bad”, Kathy Lechman, Leader, Diversity Development, Ohio State University Extension, shares examples of some common statements that many of us have repeatedly heard throughout our lives. While many of these are seemingly innocuous, others are blatantly derogatory and offensive. Whatever the case these statements convey beliefs and attitudes that ultimately take away from the dignity and respect that should be afforded all individuals.

 I went to the car dealership and really “Jewed them down”.  This is America, everyone can achieve if they really wanted to, and people on welfare are just lazy and out for a free ride.  Why do those people keep causing problems and asking for special treatment?  The only people who live in trailer parks are poor white trash.  People from small towns are stupid rednecks.  I am not prejudiced; some of my best friends are .  I do not have a problem with gay or lesbian people, as long as they don’t try to convert me.  I don’t see color, we are all the same.  Young people are nothing but trouble.  Fat people are lazy and lack discipline.  Look at that poor crippled person.  You are such an Indian giver.  Get your cotton-picking hands off of that!  Generation Xer’s have no work ethic and do not know the meaning of the word loyalty.  Old people should have their driver’s licenses taken away because they cannot drive.  You are so retarded.

In her fact sheet, The Evolving Language of Diversity, retired Senior Extension Associate (Cornell Cooperative Extension), Kathy Castania, provides us with some wonderful insights as to the power that words have to shape our thoughts, convey beliefs and perpetuate attitudes about groups. The fact sheet provides for understanding the challenges that come with creating a common language around diversity that is both affirming and empowering. The article provides an excellent historical overview that can help us to contextualize the evolution of language around diversity. Beyond providing a historical framework, Kathy also identifies some common pitfalls and misused terms across multiple dimensions of diversity including gender, abilities, class, sexual orientation, etc. Alternative strategies that can be quickly incorporated into our day-to-day interactions with colleagues and program audiences are presented throughout the article, along with resources for additional exploration and ongoing development making this fact sheet an indispensable tool for advancing the work of Extension in increasingly diverse environments.

Websites of Interest: Excellent web site developed by a professor and her students documenting their experience addressing issues of multi-culturalism and how each person in that class had learned to fear or hate “those people”. Interesting discussion of the term “red neck” and what it means today Provides a detailed history of the term “redneck” and a definition. Interesting use of satire to demonstrate a point about language. -Article by Molefi Kete Asante discussing the importance of language and the power of words. The author provides an example of the use of the “N” word and his reaction to it. This was written in the wake of Nigger the Book by Randall Kennedy. Article on the power of words with examples of how we can harm others without meaning to. This is an excellent resource and reminder of our power.
Author: Eduardo González, Jr.
State Diversity Specialist
Cornell University Cooperative Extension
[1]Eduardo Gonzalez