“Words have power. Their meaning crystallizes perceptions that shape our beliefs, drive our behavior, and ultimately, create our world. Their power arises from our emotional responses when we read, speak, or hear them.” -Unknown
Embodiment Excercise: Take a moment to look at the beautiful individuals pictured in the artwork above. Breathe in each of their unique beauty. Look into their faces. Who are they? What is their story? What unique gifts do they have to offer the world? There are no “minorities” here. These are people, with a story and an experience to share. People that represent communities worthy to be named, seen, and celebrated and not rolled into a catch-all term to make their social and emotional needs easy to generalize and dismiss.
In my last article, I briefly mentioned my dislike of using “minorities.” As a thought leader, I observe the challenges we face, the systems we live and work in, and our social practices to see what we are missing and how we can be more intentional in accomplishing our social justice goals. The values of diversity, equity, and inclusion must guide our emotions, actions, and words for us to create a world that works for us all. So, let’s talk about the importance of practicing and integrating DEI values in our language as a part of our social justice work.
A conversation about inclusive language could fill the pages of a book, and to be done correctly, it requires some level setting. This article aims to start this critical conversation by sharing why I believe it is essential to be conscious and intentional about using inclusive language. I will use the term “minority” as an example and provide practical steps to guide us in embodying the values of diversity and inclusion in our language as an intricate part of social equality and justice work. I believe that eliminating the social practice of race and racism is possible. However, I also know it won’t happen overnight. It requires intentional disintegration of our traditions of it and the systems that uphold them.
Have you ever heard the saying “practice what you preach”? It is often used to call someone’s action into alignment with what they are saying. Similarly, we often use language that does not support our thoughts or feelings. Language is important because it shapes our internal representation of the world, our physiological state, and, ultimately, our behavior. Imagine consistently welcoming something with one hand and then equally pushing it away with the other hand. When we live like this, divided between our desires and actions, we effort to change while maintaining the status quo. With this in mind, I would like to share why I believe we need to disintegrate the terms “minorities” and “people of color” from our social justice vocabulary. These words are rooted in exclusivity and do not embody the values of diversity and inclusion with intentionality.
When I define the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I describe them as values that guide us holistically in how we think, act, and feel.
Diversity is the awareness that differences exist in this human experience. Those differences are equal in value; they are all equally valuable, necessary, worthy to be seen, and sacred.
Inclusion is the consistent social practice of acknowledging, accepting, and affirming differences. It is the understanding, integrating, and serving humanity in a way that ensures all differences are, and feel safe, seen, and celebrated.
When we use the word “minority” to describe a group of people, to whom are we referring? We are referring to everyone who is not a part of the “dominant culture.”
When we use the word “people of color,” are we not defining individuals in proximity to “whiteness.” Is this language inclusive? Does it encapsulate the sacredness of differences? Does it see and celebrate the differences with intention?
To celebrate diversity effectively and be inclusive in our social practices, we must be intentional about what we are trying to communicate instead of using language that generalizes and paints the individuals we are speaking of with a broad brush. While it may feel easier to create an epithet for a group of people to save time or effort, it is a form of social and cultural erasure that upholds systems of inequality. The diversity that occurs in the human experience is vast. We could better celebrate diversity and provide equity to the communities we broadly label by actually naming them. This action keeps us from creating a social norm by which we measure all others; it creates an awareness of the differences between social and emotional needs and provides social visibility.
Lastly, I would like to highlight and have you consider the connotations of “minority” as a form of subliminal messaging. Subliminal messages have distinct impacts on people’s thoughts and behavior. Subliminal messages can change a person’s current mood, boost motivation, and even alter political attitudes. Words and their meanings can have power over how we act and think on a subconscious level and the systems we practice. Let us consider the definitions, connotations, and implications of referring to individuals as a minority.
Here is how Webster’s dictionary defines
a. A smaller number, especially a number that is less than half the whole number,
b. A state or period of being under the age of full legal responsibility.
c. a relatively small group of people, especially one commonly discriminated against in a community, society, or nation.
Majority is defined as:
a. the great number.
b. an age when a person is legally considered a full adult in most contexts, either 18 to 21.
c. the rank or office of a major
d. The number by which the votes for one party or candidate exceed those of the next in rank.
e. A party or group receiving the greater number of votes.
How do you think these definitions spill into how we think of, what we feel about, and how we treat those we label as minorities in society? How do you think the word majority perpetuates the idea of social privilege? To be legally considered is to have more rights and privileges. To be under the age of legal responsibility means that one is not empowered and is dependent on others. You will notice that our social practices directly correlate with the definition of these words and our social practices, emotions, and beliefs.
If we would like to see things change, there is a challenge. How can we acknowledge the historical truth of an experience while practicing and embodying inclusion with our language to change that experience in the future? Here are some practical steps to accomplish this. It is not a complete list by any means; I believe we all have ideas and actions that support creating inclusive language. I would love to hear your solution-focused steps on how to embody inclusive language.
- Celebrate and create visibility for ancestry, nationality, and ethnicity instead of using racialized language like white or POC. This is an act of inclusivity and equity.
- Consider the labels you use to describe unique individuals. Are they necessary or a product of social habits? Do they carry any negative emotions or beliefs?
- Practice recognizing and celebrating the depth of your personal experience; this will help you embrace yourself and others beyond labels.
- Develop authentic relationships with people who are different from you. Learn about the depth of their experience by listening to their unique human experience.
- Respect and celebrate how others wish to identify themselves.
- Be intentional about using positively charged language that centers, celebrates, and conveys the beauty and importance of a community to the whole of humanity.
- Share this article and your takeaways with a friend.
Standing in Unity,
Pamela Gray Daniel