Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, activism and DEI work are actually extensions of one another.
For us at #TeamIIP, we know that historically excluded or marginalized groups simply *can’t* check their identities at the door when entering a professional workplace. To those we’ve spoken with and worked alongside, DEI is not just about fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace — it’s about their lives and their livelihood.
But that doesn’t mean that implementing DEI policies (such as inclusive language) at work isn’t without its complications.
One one side, we’ve witnessed facing pushback over the years from those who think that the use of inclusive language is tone policing.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve witnessed those who all too freely shame someone for their mistakes (sometimes fellow DEI practitioners) when the audience fails to meet an ever-evolving standard for inclusive language.
Inspired by our 2020 episode with Michelle MiJung Kim, we revisit the idea of inclusive language three years on and discuss:
- What inclusive language is, what it is not, and who it ultimately benefits
- How implementing inclusive language can be done with intentionality (without gate-keeping or shaming others in the process)
- Why it’s less about saying the “right thing” and more about respecting the nuances of identity that language brings
- Our take on how to guide inclusive language in 2023 for more equitable workplaces
Welcome to the Inclusion in Progress podcast where we give you the ideas, actions and insights to help you build more equity at your workplace and in the world at large. I'm your host, Kay Fabella, international expert on diversity, equity and inclusion, a Filipina American living in Spain and your guide in navigating this DEI journey. Having worked with teams at companies such as Philips, the IMF, Red Hat, PepsiCo and more, I know firsthand that the work of inclusion only works when everyone has a seat at the table. Regardless of your personal entrypoint into this conversation: your race, ethnicity, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, country of origin, or educational background, we all have a role to play in creating inclusion for all and it starts with us having conversations we need to create the change we wish to see. So let's dive into today's episode.
Hey again, and welcome back! And also a warm hello to all the new faces… ears?... tuning in!?
I make myself chuckle with my dad jokes in the recording booth.
Anyway, it has been a while since we've had guests on this podcast and, regularly, the team and I always like to look back on the episodes because, if you've been following along, we have been going strong since 2019. And, if you'll remember, we used to host guests; obviously those have been incredible episodes, and we would obviously love to host guests again in the near future [Also, if you're listening, feel free to email us and let us know which guests you would like to see at email@example.com], but one of our most popular guest episodes - if we look back on not just statistics, but also feedback we've received in downloads - the clear winner was Episode 37 with the prolific Michelle MiJung Kim.
Now, we recorded that episode back in 2020, and in that episode we talked about the importance of inclusive language. But since that episode went live – well, so much has changed since 2020 – we've witnessed the cultural and even political pushback, unfortunately, towards equity and inclusion initiatives; like commitments that companies made towards creating more inclusive language.
We've also sadly witnessed this pushback showing up in companies, in schools, and in workplaces. So, as of today, when this episode is going live – that'll be May 2023 –What does inclusive language actually mean today? And does this still matter in the context of distributed work environments?
I'm Kay Fabella, and I am a DEI consultant for remote teams. I'm also the host of the Inclusion in Progress podcast where you will get research-backed industry insights into the future of work, and practical “how to’s” for equity and inclusion.
I also – surprise surprise! – lead a remote team and work with clients across EMEA, APAC and the Americas. Which means you'll always get a global perspective on how companies are supporting their distributed teams, building workplaces that work for everyone.
In today's episode of Inclusion in Progress, we'll be discussing why inclusive language still matters in our workplaces. We'll also look at what inclusive language is, and why it's less about saying the “Right Thing” and more about respecting the ever-changing nuances of identity that language brings.
So if you like the podcast, please make sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app, leave us a review if you are inspired, because – as always – these reviews help us get this content in front of equity-minded leaders in the workplace like you!
Now what prompted today's episode, in addition to going back through our favorite episodes and looking at data, was an ongoing discussion we've been having on Team IIP and with our client partners about this wave of pushback that we witnessed against DEI in both corporate and outside of corporate spaces.
And, just to be clear, to us the so-called Political Activism or Street Activism and DEI work are actually inseparable, right? For many people, especially when we're talking about historically excluded or marginalized groups, they can't check their identities in at the door when it comes to entering a professional workplace or connecting to a Teams or a Zoom environment with their managers or with their colleagues. Because DEI is not just about fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace for them, it's also about their lives and their livelihood.
In this case, we really want to highlight the fact that, for the groups that we're trying to support and the mission behind what Inclusion in Progress represents and hopes to continue contributing to, is recognizing that for the groups that have not historically had access to rooms and resources, the professional, the personal and the political are inseparable.
And so, in a strange way, seeing how the pushback towards terms like “woke” – which we've also talked about on this podcast before – and how the pushback we're seeing in DEI in the corporate realm are connected. And it's because DEI is essentially what was now being called “woke-ism”, dressed up for a corporate setting.
In the US, we've witnessed how this term – woke – got corrupted, especially over the last few years. We know, for those of you who want a little mini history lesson, that it's a word and a concept that originated among Black American activists and it gained steam amongst this community following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It's kind of incredible to think of how little has changed since then, when it comes to Black lives.
But, since then, words like “woke” and “woke-ism” that were meant to inspire and tell Black activists to stay “woke”; like stay aware, stay plugged in to the fact that you're not always going to have equal footing in the society that continues to put you down. It's become this – sitting where we're sitting in 2023 – it's become like a catch-all phrase in our American vernacular. And, sadly, we've also seen how it's being translated across cultures, as well.
I think I saw it recently in El País – which is one of the major newspapers (almost like the New York Times) here in Spain, where I'm based – “woke” in the middle of a title or a headline that is in Spanish. It's really fascinating and strange to watch.
But suffice it to say the term “woke” has become this shorthand, right, for leftist political ideology that centers on social justice, politics and concepts like Critical Race Theory. Yep, I went there. I know, that's a touchy term right now. And even though we kind of associate “woke” with a leftist-leaning ideology, the framing of how it's taken hold in our culture is bipartisan because, for political progresses on the left, it's used as shorthand for the way that they're moving the needle forward for different marginalized groups. And for those on the right, it's like an insult or an insulting way to talk about so-called leftist culture.
And, for us at Team IIP, that's really interesting. We're not sure how or why this definition of “woke” in this sense – aka trying to be more respectful and understanding of our fellow human beings experiences – has been co-opted as a bad thing. But, you know, this term now… it's just been strange to see, it's been interpreted so differently by so many groups and different meanings have been assigned to it. It's almost impossible to take the word back to its original meaning.
So whether you agree with this or not, “woke” is actually the evolution of language and action, right? We take terms that were rooted in one place, in one community, in one context, and given one specific meaning there; and we adapt it as we learn about it to our own use.
An example in English is how we use the word entrepreneur from France... I know, people who are listening to me who are from there are like, “Augh, why do you say entrepreneur that way?” But we use that word in English, right? Entrepreneur or avatar, which is something that you see and hear so often, especially in the tech space. It came from Sanskrit, right? And so now we're seeing how that's being used in English all these thousands of years later.
So, essentially, words and language goes through a long game of telephone. You remember playing that as a kid? And what comes out on the other side, is a completely different meaning. And you add to that the fact that we live in an age of memes and TikTok and Instagram, where people are adding all of their own interpretations at lightspeed.
Sometimes it's really cool to watch language evolve. So – to pepper in some fun here – I recently rewatched The Terminal. [You] guys remember that movie? It's Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg… it's fantastic! It's a really good movie, if you haven't seen it already. And it was funny to rewatch it because Tom Hanks’ character in that movie actually ends up being nicknamed “The Goat”. And it's funny to think of now because, if I watch it with the lens of being and living in the world and environment that is where I sit in 2023, I'll giggle because goat now is not just the name of an animal, but it's become an acronym, right, for the Greatest Of All Time since that movie was released… woof, almost 20 years ago! Wow, 20 years ago… yeah, 2004! And, actually, if you watch the movie – sidebar – it ends up being very appropriate for the story. So this is an example when, I think, language ages well.
But other times we'll see pushback to when language is then interpreted and then evolves in a way that can be perceived as a challenge or an upset to the status quo. So you take, for example, everything we're seeing in the United States right now around Critical Race Theory and DEI Training. Instead of actually questioning why those things need to be taught in the first place, it now has become a weapon, or you'll hear the way that people flippantly make fun of people's pronouns. And it's really hard to listen to when legislation is being passed against the transgender community in the US at, frankly, at a very alarming rate.
Even this concept of inclusive language, the topic of today's episode, we have witnessed facing pushback over the years from those who think it's tone policing on the one hand, and from those who all too freely shame someone for their mistakes when they fail to meet an impossibly high, ever-evolving standard for what's considered inclusive language at that given moment on the other hand.
Which is why today we're going to talk about what inclusive language is, why it still matters in the workplace, and why it's not just about saying the right thing.
Let's dive in!
So what is inclusive language exactly? And, obviously, there's tons of definitions about this but, again, we point you back to our colleague Michelle MiJung Kim and how she phrased it in Episode 37 on the show, and we'll be sure to link to the full episode in the show notes.
So she says: “For me inclusive language, rather, is about an approach that we take to how we think about our impact in the world. How we show up in the world of language and terms that we use, how that will impact the other people on the other side of the screen or phone or meeting, what have you. It's about that awareness and willingness to actually reconsider the way that you're showing up in order to create that trust and resilient connections with other people. It's not what people think of it as sort of a checklist of things that you're not allowed to say versus things that you're allowed to say, I think that's very simplistic, and I don't think that's going to help us get closer to where we want to be. Because language is evolving all the time. So if we're not actually agile enough to understand and with that curiosity to know why certain words can cause harm, then I think our learning can be pretty reductive. And then I think the other thing that's really important about inclusive language is that it's contextual, right? Sometimes people say, “Well, how come that person gets to say that, but I don't get to say this?” Because we are so eager to simplify everything. Sometimes we lose that nuance and the context. The fact is, identities matter when it comes to inclusive language, context matters, history matters. And who is on the other side when we're speaking or using certain language also matters. So I don't have a quick definition to give around inclusive language, but rather I implore people to think about inclusive language as a continual practice and approach that we need to revisit time after time, rather than a set list of things that we're allowed to say versus not.”
So if you haven't already, we highly encourage you to listen to the full episode with Michelle, as it's just a fantastic conversation with a very gifted practitioner.
Now, when it comes to how this is implemented, organizations and teams and governing bodies are using specific inclusive language guidelines that are meant to help give parameters to what language is considered inclusive, what's considered appropriate, and what's considered respectful. We've witnessed a particular uptick in organizations asking for things like inclusive language training, audits, guides, and policies since the resurgence of corporate dei in 2020.
But, obviously, inclusive language is shaped by time, and since recording Episode 37 with Michelle in August of 2020, we witnessed how some governing bodies have even attempted to codify inclusive language officially. And, obviously, there have been mixed responses.
So the American Psychological Association, or the APA, published guidelines for inclusive language and they only did so after having consulted APA staff, members, volunteer leaders, psychology students, clinicians, and educators. They recognize that language is not static and that it evolves with the needs of those who use it. And actually on their website, they write “The inclusive language guidelines are designed to be flexible and iterative in nature. We created the inclusive language guidelines to be a living document that will evolve over time. We expect that new terminology will emerge alongside new scholarship within psychology in the years to come. As with all our efforts, we strive to be inclusive and welcome feedback about topics that may need more in-depth coverage.”
The APA has even gone so far as to make their EDI or Equity Diversity and Inclusion office email accessible for those who would like to contribute or inform them of updates for their guidelines. But the APA is not the only organization that's released a document of inclusive language guidelines.
Back in October 2021, the European Commission also issued their own guidelines for inclusive communication. And, unsurprisingly, they received pushback from members of the European Commission, who even took issue with the idea of changing communication around Christmas to calling it the Holiday Season. Now, one EC member from Italy's far right party even called it a denial of Europe's history as having a white, Christian majority. Which is a little strange as a line to draw when you think of how many religions are currently represented on the European continent, and how many cultures and languages are represented already. So wouldn’t holidays be more…. Anyway, that's just my take on that.
But these are, ultimately, whether they were received well or not, just a couple of examples and, we think, very brave attempts by rooms where power has traditionally sat to make an effort to create more equal footing and opportunity and acknowledgement for identities who have not always had a seat at those tables.
But that leads us to the next part of today's episode, which is: Is it possible for us to take the implementation of inclusive language guidelines too far?
Now, in our research for this episode, we came across an equity language guide from US-based The Sierra Club. The guide’s purpose is not just to make sure that the Sierra Club avoids obviously derogatory terms, such as “welfare queen”, it seeks to cleanse language of any trace of privilege or hierarchy or bias or exclusion. Now, that sounds like a very lofty and righteous goal, right? But when you're trying to erase language – because language is imbued with the meanings and the assigned definitions that each of us have given to those words over time, sometimes over generations – you're going to be struggling when it comes to eradicating bias, because bias is codified into the languages that we speak. So when you're trying to remove exclusive language, when you are using the measurement of whether or not it's been rooted in racism, or discrimination, or so-called “Othering”, that's up to interpretation.
So, for example, they've discouraged the use of the word “stand”, because not everyone can stand, and the word “American”, because not everyone in the country that they're based in is a citizen. They've also discouraged the use of words such as “blind” and “crazy”, because it's insulting to people who “live with disabilities”, which is the term that they encourage instead of referring to the community as “disabled”.
So most of the inclusive language guides we've seen come out, like the one for the Sierra Club, at least in the US, they all draw from the same sources from activist organizations such as A Progressive’s Style Guide, orthe Racial Equity Tools glossary, and a couple of others that, if you did a quick Google search, you would find.
But the total number of people behind this project, simply because of how many different organizations in their rush to meet this sudden awakening around DEI in 2020 pulled from these guides, is actually relatively small. But because of how many people and organizations today and tomorrow they're affecting, that power is potentially immense.
The guides themselves – the original guides that were created to try and provide some… some language for inclusive language (I was trying to avoid saying that, but here we are) – they refer to language as evolving. But the changes that they're offering to people are not really bottom-up, they're not things that have emerged organically to mirror how language evolves over time, from the shifting linguistic habits of large numbers of people. But, rather, it's very-top down, right? They're handed down in these really quickly circulated memos, they're written by self-appointed experts who… again, maybe they have those qualifications and I can't speak to them, we don't know them. But they say that they speak for their communities, but there's no way to cross check that, there's no way to know whether or not the language that they're saying is what we should be using is actually the most current version of that language, and whether or not it's actually sourced from the communities that they claim to represent. But they also remain unanswerable to those of us who then have to actually use these language guides in the day-to-day world and our workplaces.
So Team IIP witnessed a version of this over the last four years from where we sit. And, in that timeframe, we've seen how, for example in the US, the Hispanic community embraced “Latinx” and then the more pronounceable “Latine” to eradicate that paytrail hierarchy that's in Spanish and a lot of romance languages. We've watched the disability community embrace and then backpedal, depending on where you were having that conversation in the world, on the acceptance of the term “differently-abled”.
Now, the term was always really clunky to begin with. And I remember, we've probably referred to it even on this podcast because, again, language evolves. And, honestly, it did feel quite ableist and I think that realization was shared amongst that community because it was very specific to culture and context and class. Another example of this that we witnessed is when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors replaced the word “felon” with something called “Justice-Involved Person”. And inherently within that it was making an ideological claim that there's something illegitimate about laws, courts and prisons.
Well, that's a whole thing for another day. I'm not going to deep dive on that because… prison reform. That, I'm sure many more people can speak to than we can.
But suffice it to say, like anything that's prescribed top-down, this approach to creating a guide to inclusive language that is supposed to be comprehensive and doesn't have any room for dialogue, because it's prescriptive… it's got this forced and almost unnatural quality when it's implemented. Because what ends up happening is it becomes this horizontal measuring stick, right? It's intended to help people know when to say the right thing and the wrong thing. But it also flattens the subtleties and nuances of the different flourishes that make up language and self expression. And what's considered the right thing to say today, even if it's between the same two people, will easily become the “wrong thing to say” tomorrow because, again, language evolves.
So we're seeing this attempt to revolutionize how we speak by many of the people who are writing these guides claiming to be objective by saying they're here to dismantle structural and racial hierarchies, which is very embedded in our language, as we know. But these inclusive language guides and the experts that make them are also asserting intellectual and moral authority over the people who are reading their guides, who are just supposed to accept that this is gospel, that this is true. And though these guides recommend that the use of these words are available to everyone, the glossaries are meant to highlight your ignorance when it comes to inclusive language. Like, I've read a few of these and, even for me, as somebody who's continually trying to learn and is trying to unpack my own biases and misperceptions and blind spots as a practitioner, both individually and with the team; the subtext of how these things are presented is… “Oh, you didn't know that you're supposed to say this!? Not that?? Well, clearly, you have work to do!”
And inclusive language guides are put together by people who are highly specialized in this. They've dedicated their lives to this. This is their mission. But they're also – by including that subtext of, “You don't know enough and we're here to show you the way,” – trying to warn off the uninitiated. They're trying to showcase that there is a distance, there is a hierarchy between you and them. And there's a claim that they are in favor of accessibility and inclusion but only if you follow in lockstep with their moral standards of righteousness, as they are worded in these guides. And this has been such a challenging topic for us to even write about and talk about openly on the podcast because there's just so much subtlety and nuance to this conversation that we really wanted to approach it with, with its due diligence… But, if we're being honest, it's kind of terrifying to watch a group of inclusive language experts – self-appointed, mind you – with their intention and desire so deeply in the right place, use a playbook that feels eerily similar to a lot of these centuries old power plays that formed all of the “-archies” and “-isms” that they claim to stand against.
And, sadly, this is just one of many reasons for what we anticipated as an inevitable pushback to corporate DEI initiatives and how it came so quickly. Because when you've got these practitioners and inclusive language experts shaming others repeatedly for saying the wrong thing, it's easy for that person who has been trying to follow and implement those things to point that finger back in frustration and say, “Well, you were obviously never satisfied with me when I tried to say the right thing and you keep moving the line.” And, unfortunately, those tend to be the people who hold the purse strings and the power that we needed to buy into this work in the first place.
But as I've said before in Episode 91: How Can We Have Conversations in DEI Without Shaming Each Other? Shame and pointing fingers gets us nowhere.
Now, again, I caveat this: I've shared all of this with you and we've prepared the script for you to present, hopefully, a more nuanced perspective to this conversation; given that our team talks to people from all over the world, not just English-speaking countries. The frustration that we face is many of these concepts written by this tiny group of experts, that then get translated into policy and guidelines, that are then clunkily implemented in different contexts and cultures… it's done so without really seeing that there's another perspective in how these things would be applied.
And that actually brings me back to why inclusive language actually matters.
I know, I’m taking you on this journey. It feels a little bit like whiplash. Hang on!
Now, inclusive language should not be used as a horizontal barometer to measure our “enoughness” or our “goodness” or “righteousness” against. But it should be encouraged as a critical practice, rooted in a shared desire for greater understanding and removal to those barriers to understanding.
So the pursuit of inclusive language does have its place in supporting a more respectful and equitable workplace when it's done with critical thinking and compassion and an acceptance that the perspective of you, as the person who has lived through it and what you perceive as being “right” or not, is very specific to your cultural context and your frame of reference.
It's possible to teach and encourage and honor the differences between us and our leaders and our colleagues while creating a shared language that bolsters psychological safety, performance and constructive solution finding.
So that brings me to, well, why does inclusive language actually matter?
Well, it's no secret that workplaces were designed for straight, white, European, able-bodied, English-speaking, Christian men in the 1800s. Wow, that was a mouthful! As many of my colleagues refer to it: male, pale, and stale, for shorthand.
But the further you are from that center that was used as the baseline for design of these workplaces, the more footing you have to regain from not having been in that room or having a seat at that decision-making table for years. The reality is inclusive language is just one attempt to try to equalize that footing between groups that have traditionally had power and access and resources, and those that haven't. Unfortunately, it's turned into a watered-down exercise with the intention to create a checklist of what to say and what not to say.
But here's the thing.
If you're someone from a historically marginalized or excluded group, an “only” in your workplace, or a person who continues to watch your rights being eroded by the leaders who claim to represent you in government; the reality is you are in constant threat-scanning mode. It's likely that you've undergone one or multiple intersectional traumatic experiences that have seen people question your worthiness as a human, that have seen people threaten your right to exist, that have seen challenges to your qualifications and your ability to perform your job well.
We know the statistics around how marginalized groups are more likely to face mental health challenges due to systemic discrimination. But we forget that the expenditure of always needing to be in constant threat-scanning mode, of always needing to be on your guard with your adrenals on fire because you are on the lookout for anything that you know will probably be anywhere between a microaggression or outright harassment, because of the meaning that someone else has decided to assign to you. That also erodes your mental health and your performance in the workplace over time.
And when a place or when a space hasn't been designed for you, the people you are surrounded by may have no idea how to interact with you. Which is why having a guide on how to be more inclusive in our day-to-day communication with one another, when it's implemented well, has value.
As our workplaces continue to diversify and spread out over the globe, it increases, it multiplies the number of opportunities there might be for us to misunderstand when we communicate with one another. Which will lead, of course, to inefficiency, because you've got more likelihood of mistakes, more likelihood of misinterpretation, and more likelihood of miscommunication and potential conflict.
And that, now, is even more exacerbated because it could be anywhere between everybody on different virtual platforms, in the same location, across locations; and then you throw in the whole hodgepodge of languages and geographies and it's just… it's just a whopping mess!
So, in this sense, it's not so much about whether or not something is said properly in the face of this ever-growing complexity. But rather whether or not the environment that we're building together offers the grace to encourage someone to learn and try again. Inclusive language, in the sense that we're presenting it, should not be gatekept for one specific country or one specific context or culture by a small group of intellectuals. Language barriers in whatever form they take should never be a hindrance to communication, especially when companies depend on the barriers being removed so that people can understand each other and people can perform at their best.
But if we learn to be mindful of those potential misunderstandings, if we collectively acknowledge the history of language and respect its natural evolution, and provide tools to support teams in mitigating these misunderstandings, inclusive language can do what it was meant to: help people communicate, work together more effectively, and learn to trust one another.
So there you have it, why inclusive language still matters in the workplace. Team IIP’s take on what inclusive language is with the help of our colleague, Michelle MiJung Kim, and why it's less about saying the “right thing” and more about respecting the ever-changing nuances of identity that language brings.
At Inclusion in Progress, we've always recognized the need to investigate barriers to psychological safety, such as the reasons why we need to be looking at whether inclusive language exists or doesn't, because we know that identifying how to remove barriers to communication and understanding will allow organizations to create a work culture where, despite being in a distributed environment, employees can contribute their best ideas without fear of judgment or exclusion, ensuring an engaged, productive, and equitable workplace, no matter where employees choose to work from.
We also know that these three years have been challenging (understatement!) for every organization to navigate. And that's why we want to support you with creating inclusive distributed work strategies in 2023 that will help you increase psychological safety and morale for your current and future teams. To learn more about our services and how you can work with us before year-end, you can email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free, no-pressure consultation call with the team.
As always, thank you so much for listening. Thank you for sharing these episodes with others. And we'll see you next time on Inclusion in Progress!