Stumbling Over DEI?

4-minute read

Jerry jokes that everyone in the office should wear their new, logo-embroidered fleeces as their new uniform—except for Olivia, who always looks great—er—dresses well—er—is all high-fashion—er …

Olivia is the only woman in the office. In trying to pay a compliment, Jerry starts stumbling and mumbling. Suddenly he fears that his comment is sexist. Exclusionary. Inappropriate. A-call-to-HR issue. Oh, man. I really stuck my foot in my mouth on that one. She’s going to think I’m a total misogynist.

Liz bumps in to a neighbor who was just elected to the local park district board. She congratulates Andre and asks how he likes his new volunteer position. They chat for a few minutes and, as they are just about to part, Liz says “I am so glad that there’s finally a person of color on the board! You should get your friends to run for election.” On the walk home, Liz’s stomach starts to sink. She cringes at the double-whammy microaggression that she in no way intended to be hurtful. As though all of Andre’s friends are Black as well? I’m such an idiot.

Few of us can claim to have never slighted anyone by something we’ve said, written, or done. As people around the world become more woke to their own biases and phobias, many of us are in wont of ways to effectively communicate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI has become an important issue for business professionals, nonprofit leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, and just about anyone who lives, works, or plays with folks who have different backgrounds.

These varying backgrounds aren’t related only to sex or race. Any number of -isms can cause us to stumble over our words or, worse, not even realize how hurtful our words really are.

You’re pretty good with that software for someone your age.
Ageism.

I figured you got here on a scholarship.
Classism.

You probably need some help getting that contraption up the hill. Let me help you.
Abilityism.

Genderism. Nationalism. Xenophobia.
Appropriations. Assumptions. Stereotypes.

Various unconscious, often unintended, slights pepper our language, usually without us noticing—until it’s too late. As humans living in an ever-changing world in which implicit biases color our language, and as humans becoming more aware of these biases, we must be conscious of what we say and how we say it. We have to communicate for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For many of us, this might be easier said than done. How can we communicate for DEI if these biases are unconscious? How can we write for DEI if we don’t know which terms or phrases might be microaggressions? How can we edit for DEI if we don’t know how to adjust our language?

First, we need to recognize that we are in the early steps of the DEI journey. This is new stuff for many of us. So we must be careful with our communications, but not too hard on ourselves when our communication skills fall short.

Second, we need to become aware of our own implicit biases, -isms, and phobias. This takes some soul-searching and can be uncomfortable. But it must be done if we are to effectively communicate for DEI.

Third, we need to write, edit, and speak with DEI at the front of our minds. This means we need to ensure that our language avoids appropriations, assumptions, biases, clichés, inaccuracies, stereotypes, tokenism, typecasting, etc.

One way to ensure that we are communicating for diversity, equity, and inclusion is to avoid trigger words and phrases. These include:

—adjectives: bitchy, bossy, crazy, fat, frigid, fruity, girly, hysterical, niggardly, prissy, queer, retarded, ugly, uppity, vanilla, wimpy
—nouns: blacklist, cakewalk, Eskimo, fag, geezer, ghetto, housewife, lynch mob, master suite, Oriental, savage, sissy, slave, white trash
—verbs: to blacken, to go Dutch, to go off the reservation, to gyp, to kike, to manhandle, to mother, to sell down the river, to steward

These are just a smattering of the words that represent slights and microaggressions that can be hurtful to people of color, to cisgender or gender-neutral people, to people of a certain age … and so many others.

Communicating for DEI can be challenging. Some people feel that this is just a bunch of politically correct nonsense that impinges on First Amendment rights. That’s another debate for another day. But if we are to build welcoming communities and organizations, these are exactly the things we need to consider. Because words matter.

DEI is a journey. It’s more than a mindset. It takes practice. Communicating effectively requires awareness, empathy, and thought. And that’s a good place to start.

—Kelli
March 23, 2021

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