By Katelyn Skye Bennett and Joanna Chin | Editor-in-chief and Staff Writer, respectively
The language we use is constantly being contested and scrutinized under new lenses, and keeping up with the changing expectations and meanings around terms can feel exhausting. How do we know what is right to say anymore? Why is everyone so sensitive about this now?
But picture this: You are holding a sign above your head with your name on it. You move through the world with this sign so people can identify you and have a reference point for who you are.
Now imagine someone walking by and pausing to cross out your name and replace it with another one. “I like this better,” they say as they walk away. What feelings might come up?
That is the experience of many people with marginalized identities when they are identified with language that either does not align with their understanding of themselves or refers to incomplete and even harmful narratives applied to the communities they are a part of.
When we lapse into using only words that feel most familiar and comfortable for us in reference to people who don’t share the same identities as us, we could be adding to the baggage that these words represent to them. It’s an unjust exercise of our power when we choose to identify people by words they would not choose for themselves — and we do this unintentionally everyday.
Knowledge Is Power
It is vital that we are in the practice of consistently educating ourselves on what terms people who don’t share the same identities as us use in reference to themselves and their communities.
Rather than it being an action of mere accommodation, it is an act of sacrificial love and empathy; we surrender our convenience to use language that will build up and honor the dignity of our neighbors. Anything less than that is in service to our own comfort, especially when we are challenged by friends and colleagues to reconsider the words we use and their impact.
As trans writer Gioncarlo Valentine points out in their compelling op-ed piece: “Language is meant to be inclusive, but most important[ly], it is meant to expand, to be updated and challenged by the times.”
Three Common Questions
Should I say African American or Black?
There is a complex discussion there, and it is partly generational with other nuances based on immigration history. Black isn’t a negative term that needs to be hushed, and if someone prefers African American, you can use that term for them.
But the N word is never acceptable. Words such as these have historical weight and reference experiences of systemic discrimination. Thus, agency should be given to the communities connected to them to decide how, when, by whom, and if ever they should be used.
Their email signature says “she/they.” How do I address them?
If you don’t know what gender someone identifies with, you can respectfully ask for their pronouns. This is always better than assuming based on appearance. In this case, the person has already told you what they’re comfortable with: she/her/hers or they/their/theirs.
How do I talk about people with disabilities without causing harm?
Similar to the first question, this is also part of a larger, complex conversation, and again, priority goes to engaging people first and asking how each specific person prefers to be addressed or described. Another way to be considerate is to research the common language being used now by these communities.
Bottom line? Be humble, ask thoughtful questions, admit when you are wrong, and stay curious.
The Heart of PC Language
Politically correct language isn’t about policing language but rather about graciously respecting people. It is not about what words are trendy or merely being tolerant. At its heart, PC language — better termed inclusive language — orients us toward better loving people with different lived realities than us.
We honor the image of God in others when we grant them the space to challenge, reimagine, and create language through which they can locate themselves. When we submit to their expertise and experience, we open ourselves to the opportunity to cultivate meaningful relationships where each person feels respected and cared for.
Underneath, write down three more terms that you have been corrected on. For example, you could write transgendered with an ed, handicapped, and Oriental.
As you go through your week, use reliable podcasts, articles, and other educational tools to learn more about the words, what they mean or connotate, and why it is helpful to use certain words rather than others.