Every year, numerous organizations come up with their list of words and phrases that deserve to be retired from the public lexicon. When I started my journey to learn about equity and racism, I became aware of a whole new lexicon around race, gender, socio-economic status and so on that I had not fully embraced before. Now, while I am not going to suggest that those words and phrases be banned, I have learned that some of them need to be used thoughtfully and in the proper context.
So many of the words, terms and phrases currently being used to discuss race and gender alone have the potential to trigger a wide array of emotion. Even unintentionally, they are often perceived as disrespectful, offensive and insulting. And some terms, especially around racism, have the potential to be divisive and inflame the issue rather than soothe.
If we are going to eradicate racism, and evolve into a society in which every person–regardless of their race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, [add others here].–is treated equally with respect, then we need to lean into things that make us uncomfortable, seek to understand the meaning behind words and phrases that have the ability to divide, and be mindful of the way we incorporate those words and phrases into our dialog.
The problem occurs when certain words or phrases are used in a way that they elicit a binary response such as “yes” or “no,” or force the one being asked to provide a response that will be perceived as “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.”
Here is an example using a subject unlike the ones above:
A supervisor asks an employee who hasn’t been around for a few days, “Have you been on vacation?” Innocent question, one that I’ve asked others myself. However, it’s also possible the employee could perceive it as to imply “Where the heck have you been?” or “We could have used your help.” or worse, what if the employee wasn’t on vacation but was sick, or reported to work the whole time? Questions like this force the responder to provide an answer they assume will be perceived as good or bad.
Alternatively, the supervisor could have asked, “What have you been up to the last few days?” This immediately conveys an authentic interest in the employee and shows that they are valued.
Now consider the question, “Are you [insert a term related to gender]?” That is also a question looking for a “yes” or “no” response, and depending on the relationship that exists also forces the responder to provide an answer they believe will be perceived either positively or negatively.
The alternative approach to this question, if it is appropriate to do so, would be, “What are your pronouns?” This is far more respectful and doesn’t place the person being asked in a position described in the previous example.
To be clear, I don’t believe it serves us well to insulate ourselves from difficult topics. But as a result of my own self-reflection, I’ve come to realize that I may have inadvertently done exactly what I am suggesting is problematic. So, whether talking about music or racism, I am going to try to communicate in a way that conveys value and respect and avoid language that forces a response that accomplishes the alternative. I am also looking for ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation in others to combat inequity and appreciate your suggestions how to do so.