A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha among diversity practitioners on LinkedIn about whether to include justice in the acronym for the work we do. Much like LGBTQ+ movement, diversity, equity, and inclusion seems to be undergoing constant revision – DEI, JEDI, IDEA, DEIB, etc.
I admit my preference would be to use “IDEA” or “DEIA,” mainly because I believe disability is neglected in many DEI programs (and ableism is one of the more entrenched systems of oppression). But I also describe myself as acronym agnostic because I actually don’t think this is a particularly important argument to have.
People love to say “words matter.” And they do when we’re talking about not using racial slurs for sports team names or in governing documents. But words do not matter as much as context.
I say this as a communications professional who has written an entire chapter in my book Equity on how to communicate for change. Brevity & Wit also has a number of consultants who have backgrounds in communications research, namely how do audiences hear and internalize our messages. And the research is clear: the context around words often matters more than the words themselves.
Take, for example, Amy Cooper, the White woman who was recorded telling an innocent bird-watcher who asked her to leash her dog that she was going to call the police “to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life” in Central Park. She may have used all the right words, but in a clearly racist manner. It was a racist statement, even though she used no particularly racist words.
During my lifetime, American society has shifted from using the term Black people to African Americans, and now back to Black people. And there are reasons for that shift. But the bigger problem is that, as Amy Cooper shows, we have not shifted what we say to and about Black people.
Trevor Noah explains the importance of context beautifully in this take on the misogynoir Lizzo experienced after removing an ableist term from one of her songs. Notice how he also explains why terms with double meanings in different English-speaking countries are not the same as the N-word, which has no other double meaning.
There are lots of official research terms for context. In my book, I talk about framing. A frame structures an argument or message in a particular way without altering the attributes of the message. For example, you can call funding for solar energy an environmental initiative or an initiative for energy choice. Different people respond to different messages, even though the word or idea (funding for solar energy) is the same.
Trabian Shorters coined the term asset-framing, which is similar to framing. In the Amy Cooper example, a Black man was framed as a threat instead of what he has to offer (in this case, a curiosity and passion for bird watching, so much that he’s now hosting a bird watching show on National Geographic). But as Trabian once cautioned an audience, you can’t simply change the words and ignore the context. Calling at-risk youth “opportunity youth” will not suffice. The brain does the math and knows you’re probably talking about poor Black and Brown kids. If you haven’t done anything to frame them according to their aspirations or assets, all you’ve done is created a condescending term and perpetuated the idea that they need your help because they are deficient in some area – in this case, deficient in access to opportunity.
Now, I can recognize that all this focus on word choice comes from a good place; people want to get it right. Or more accurately, people want to be good, and they think that being right means being good. But I beg to differ. As I once heard Steve Pemberton say, “You can be 100% right in what you’re saying and 100% wrong in how you’re saying it.”
When we jump on the chance to correct people’s words, we stymie the opportunity to connect with them or hear them on a deeper level. I admit I have been guilty of this. But when we focus on the concreteness of words instead of how those words are being used to convey a deeper sentiment, we miss the opportunity to connect. And connection is a requirement for societal change. And as Reverend Jennifer Bailey said, “Relationships move at the speed of trust. Social change moves at the speed of relationships.”
When words are used to disconnect us from one another, to divide us, to assert dominance (even intellectual dominance), they are being used in a supremacist manner. A supremacist approach to power looks to exclude, dominate, extract, oppress, or control. A liberatory approach to power looks to connect, heal, repair and empower. (These definitions are derived from Cyndi Suarez’s book, The Power Manual, and Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth.)
A liberatory approach to inclusive communication would prioritize sentences that connect people and repair negative stereotypes over word choice. For example, my parents were taught as children to refer to North American indigineous people as Red Indians (to differentiate from people like themselves, who were indigineous to India). The first time I heard them use this term when I was young it was when they said something to the effect of “White people should have adopted the culture of Red Indians when they arrived here.” Their word choice was wrong, no doubt, but their sentence framed Native American culture as something for me to admire from a very young age.
I’ve since corrected my parents on their word choice. So I’m not saying that we can’t continue to evolve our language. But I did not shame them. We all need to put the horse before the cart and spend more time focusing on the sentences we construct and how they frame another human being or a group, and less time obsessing about the particular words we use. All the right words can still cause a world of harm. But liberatory sentences can heal our wounds and repair our society.