Do you have any tips for how to avoid using offensive language?

December 7, 2020

By Amanda Robinson

This is a great question. Every situation is different, but here are some common practices I use to make my language welcoming to everyone:

Ask if you're unsure: Anytime I have to speak or present, I scan my notes for potentially hurtful language. Sometimes, that's as simple as Googling the question, "Is the word _____ offensive?" A lot of people would be surprised to find how many common phrases have origins in hurtful places, or reinforce stereotypes that are harmful. This is the easiest way to become more inclusive in your everyday life. Over the years I've had to train lots of phrases out of my vocabulary:

  • Crazy: a mental health slur
  • Stupid: an ableist slur
  • You guys: no consideration for non-male colleagues
  • Girls: in reference to female colleagues. Calling them girls instead of women is patronizing.
  • Minority: should not be used as a synonym for non-white people. Globally, non-white people are the majority of the population. In the U.S., demographics are shifting in that direction well.
  • Peanut Gallery: this is racist and classist.

Be open to input: We all need input, guidance and correction — it's how we become better at our jobs. Being corrected is not a personal attack. We all need to be open to correction in those moments, so we can learn better ways to include people when we're speaking. Our colleagues can be some of our best allies in this work because we all hear and interpret things differently. If a situation arises where you receive feedback, say thank you for the correction and work to do better next time.

Consider the impact: Sometimes our intentions don't match the impact of our words and actions. Was someone hurt by something? Was there a negative outcome? Did someone suffer? If so, that is what is important. It doesn’t matter that the harm was inflicted indirectly. The goal is not to place blame or point fingers, but to expand our ability to consider how others might feel in different situations. My dad always tells me, "You're never too smart, too old or too important to learn how to treat people well." I carry that with me into every conversation I have.

Language is always evolving. We are all learning as we go. With that in mind, never be afraid to offer an apology when you offend someone, or to be open to accepting one if someone makes a mistake. EDI is collaborative and it requires practice. This is such a great question because it is something that is useful for everyone at CDHS.

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