(The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. I recognise that being white, financially secure and with a strong support network it is safe for me to #ChooseToChallenge when it may not be for others.)

“Unconventional”. That’s the word that started me on a route to a career change after 26 years as an academic. Someone else’s description of me as an unconventional academic (because I spent a lot of time doing outreach even as a professor) got into my head and led to a train of thought that fundamentally changed my life. Albeit 3 years later.

Words matter. Language matters. In the world of diversity and inclusion this is heightened. I’m not just talking about the overtly discriminatory sexist, racist, homophobic or other verbal abuse, although we should acknowledge that there is plenty of that around. The Everyday sexism project tells us that there is plenty of casual verbal sexism out there in every environment, every day. Microaggressions experienced by members of the global majority are often language based – as you can see in this BBC video. Much to our shock and disappointment and possibly demonstrating the bubble that we live in, my 13 year old son’s male classmates routinely use racist and homophobic slurs to each other (aside – it’s tough being an ally at that age – wouldn’t it be great to have an ally support programme for teenagers?).

Words matter whether they are said publicly on national TV or other parts of the media, in a formal setting such as a meeting, more privately in a work chatroom, a pub, bar or café, or within the home. In fact it’s in these more “cosy” spaces that true feelings about “political correctness” or stereotypes and derogatory jokes in the form of banter persist, when the perpetrators “know not to” use the same language in a formal setting. Language used in private settings can be a signal of people’s true conscious and unconscious bias.

Words matter when seemingly innocuous phrases are used to disguise processes that at best haven’t been thought through with an inclusive lens, and at worse are deliberately designed to exclude. These include “on merit”, “the best person for the job”, “cultural fit”.

Words matter when you exclude people from “hearing” them because of differences in hearing or vision. (I know I have been guilty of not always using alt-text on images, not always captioning talks, or not capitalising hashtags so that they can be interpreted by screen readers. But I’m trying to do better).

Words matter in a different way when socially acceptable commitments are used liberally but action doesn’t follow. Or when words are blatantly in conflict with visible action. This is an area that has been under intense scrutiny around race since the death of George Floyd, and again around reactions to allegations of racism made by Meghan Markle. Saying you “stand in support of Black Lives Matter” and are “listening to the experiences of under-represented groups in your organisation” is all very well, but means little if no action or change follows, or you don’t talk about your learning.

Finally, words matter in another more subtle way in the D&I world. Fear of “saying the wrong thing” is often cited as a barrier to getting involved in diversity and inclusion work or advocacy. Sometimes this is because people are genuinely afraid of making mistakes and causing offense, but other times it is an excuse. I most often meet this in discussions around supporting LGBT+ colleagues, around transgender and non-binary discussions and around race. Now, language does evolve fast as we learn from different perspectives. Different people within minoritized communities have different views on acceptable language, and how they choose to articulate their identity. For example, some prefer “person with disabilities” (people first, disabilities second), whilst others prefer “disabled person” (highlights the role of society in disabling the person). In terms of race, being as specific as you can is usually appreciated. Black or Asian or Brown rather than BAME or people of colour. Why not use nationality when it is appropriate? If you are talking exclusively about a Jamaican heritage community, refer to them as Jamaican rather than “Black”. Being under-confident in the language to use is not an acceptable excuse for not talking about racism, sexism or any other diversity and inclusion issue. Educate yourself as much as you can. Know, accept and own that you will make mistakes. Ask forgiveness, be truly sorry and demonstrate learning when you do.

This is an area that I am constantly unlearning and learning. You might have noticed I used “minoritized community” rather than minority ethnicity in the previous paragraph – this is because pretty much every term used to describe people is defined relative to white being defined as the default. And it is the “majority” that “minoritizes” other groups. In fact, I am coming to understand that it would be preferable to avoid using “minority” at all – people with skin that is not white are the global majority after all, and being referred to as minority population can contribute to internalised and externalised oppression.

My current set of tips would be:

  • That if you absolutely need to refer to characteristics of an individual – ask them how they would want to be introduced. Most of the time you don’t need to do this.
  • Don’t use ”people of colour” to avoid saying black – I tend to only use it if I can’t be more specific (because data is presented or collected in such a way).
  • If you are forced into using any umbrella terms because that is the way data is presented and collected, acknowledge that this is inadequate.
  • Language in casual and informal settings matters as much as that in the public sphere – and here you can have an impact. If you are nervous about calling out banter or everyday sexism, you could use a little script that I learnt at a Stonewall training course – U.H.T. “I understand that you find using that language amusing. However, I and others find it offensive because it suggests that women are inferior to men (insert own interpretation here). Therefore, I would prefer it if we didn’t use that language in this setting.” It might feel a bit formal and stilted and there are many other ways of intervening – especially if you know the person well, but I have used it on a variety of occasions.
  • Even if tradition says “Good evening ladies and gentleman” – do you actually need to say that? Wouldn’t “Good Evening” be enough? My personal challenge is to find alternatives for “guys” when talking to a mixed group. Many people might not be bothered by this phrase, but I am, and others will be. Ideas gratefully received in the spirit of continual learning!

As this is about words, it seems fitting to end with my favourite quote at the moment from Maya Angelou:  “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”.

A black and white photograph of Maya Angelou alongside her quote "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better)

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