Our world is changing, and our language needs to change with it. Language can exclude people, cut people out, and cut people down. We need to start having more open conversations about ways we can use our language to include everyone and to use it sensitively as to not discriminate against anyone. I am by no means an expert, nor do I ever and will ever claim to be, but I have been consciously changing my language both internally and externally these last few years, as well as changing my automatic assumptions. I’m honestly surprised at how far I have changed my language and thinking in only two or so years, and I think that shows it doesn’t take much effort or time to change the way we think and speak in a way that is more appropriate, kind, and sensitive in the world we live in today.
Of course, it is worth remembering that both our world and language are constantly changing, and what is okay today we might realise tomorrow or in a few years is no longer acceptable, so we need to be open to always changing and adjusting to the world around us. Furthermore, there is never a one-size-fits-all approach – what’s acceptable for one person may not be for another. While this makes it a lot more complicated and may even make you think, what’s the point of changing my language and thinking in the first place? – I say it’s a learning experience. Trying is much better than not trying. Getting it wrong and learning from it is better than not bothering to change. Listening and educating yourself is better than giving up because it’s too complicated.
So try and start – start anywhere and everywhere. This list is simply all the things I could think of but I’m sure there are so many more that I might have missed and that I do not even know of (please do let me know if you see something I’ve missed). As both a woman and someone who lives with a disability, I’ve come to learn how language can be hurtful and degrading, as well as excluding. But I also know there are many people out there who have it a thousand times worse than me, which is why I’m making the effort to make sure I don’t make anyone feel the way some people have made me feel with their language. I hope this post might spark open conversations with the people around you, as well as yourself, about how you use your language too and if and what might need to change.
Please note: Capitalising “Black” for me was an easy decision, but I had much debate about whether to capitalise “White” in this blog post (especially as there is no right answer to this question and much debate). After reading this article – https://consciouscompanymedia.com/workplace-culture/conscious-style-guide-the-case-for-capitalizing-black-and-white-in-context-of-racial-identity/ – I decided to capitalise both, especially as the context here is a lot around race, as I always capitalise Asian or Caribbean or other ethnicities, so it makes sense to do that both for Black and White too.
Things I have changed:
1. I’ve stopped using “he” and “she” as ways to describe someone before I know how they identify themselves – I’m becoming more and more aware of the fact that not everyone identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth, and not everyone identifies with the sex we will often associate with their outer appearance. This is why if I’m talking about someone who I’ve never met, or who I have met but don’t yet know how they identify themselves or their pronouns, I won’t use the words “he” or “she” but simply “they”. Or if I am around them and talking about them to others, I will just use their name or “you”. This way I have made no presumptions and I have not taken away their power to identify themselves as he/she/they/however they choose to, as it is not my right to assume their gender or pronoun. It is their right alone to decide how they identify themselves and no one should take that away from anyone. This also leads me to…
2. Using non-gendered words to describe people – When I started my blog, I did not yet understand the importance of using non-gendered words to describe people. So when I was re-reading through some old blog posts, I was starkly aware of the times in a post I would use examples of “mums” and “boys”. So when I sat down to write my book, with the awareness I now have, I changed my language to always be inclusive when I was not talking about myself or specific people in my life. Every time I was writing an example, I crossed out “mum” or “dad” and wrote “parents”, instead of writing “men or women” I wrote “people”, instead of writing “boys or girls” I wrote “children”, and instead of writing “brother or sister” I wrote “sibling”. This only shows that not only does everything not have to be gendered but that we don’t have to learn new words to be inclusive either: we just need to change our language and use non-gendered words.
3. I’ve stopped using the presumptuous “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” when asking about someone, and instead, just use the word “partner” – Too often when someone tells us their sister is seeing someone, we’ll say, “What is he like?” – making the automatic assumption “she” is heterosexual, and therefore is dating a “he”. Or if someone says “Mike just got married”, you’ll quickly reply, “Oh lovely, what’s his wife’s name?”. It’s time we all stop making straight/heterosexual the default and realise so many people do not identify with this. Over the last few years I have changed my thinking and eliminated my automatic assumption that someone is straight, which really does show that by consistently changing our language, we can change the messages the world has presented to us for decades/centuries and change our core and automatic language and thinking. I will now always use the word “partner”, as this eliminates all assumptions and makes it inclusive for everyone – not just straight people.
It’s also worth noting that even if someone you know has had just “boyfriends” or “girlfriends” in the past, that does not mean this is the only sex they will continue to date in the present or future. Someone might have had a history of boyfriends, but now has a girlfriend – so again, using the word “partner” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is important for everyone, including all your friends, family members, or colleagues you already know or have known for a long time. Or if someone says they’ve been on a date, again, instead of saying, “What is her/his name?”, you can just ask, “What is their name?” That way you can eliminate assumptions and be inclusive to everyone.
4. I’ve stopped assuming “White” as the default – This is one I’m working very hard on, but I definitely feel I am getting there in that my automatic response is no longer to assume a person who is being described to me in a conversation or a book is White if no skin colour is mentioned – or at least I’m getting better at internally questioning my own automatic assumptions and changing them as soon as they come. This also brings about change number 4…
5. When describing someone to put a face to a name, I will describe White people as White, and Black people as Black… – Extending on the point above, I think too many White people assume that someone we’ve never met, or a character in a book, when being described, is White. But we never actually describe a White person as being White. But we do describe a Black person as being Black, or a Chinese person as being Chinese, or a Latino person as being Latino, and this is where we need to change our language to stop making White the default. This is why when I now describe someone, or when someone else describes me someone I will ask if they are White if they haven’t mentioned their skin colour, or I will describe them as White if that is what they are.
I’m still struggling to understand if it’s better to not mention someone’s skin colour at all, but seeing as we live in a world where we describe non-White people as non-White, it makes more sense to me to match this with describing White people as White, and for White people to stop assuming White is the default, hence why we need to enquire if they are White or say if they are White. Because if instead, we no longer describe non-White people by not mentioning their skin colour, White people will still assume they are White. Thinking about examples, I’m sure there have been times when I was younger when someone was described to me without their skin colour being mentioned, and then I met them, only to be surprised if they were Black or non-White – because I wrongly assumed they were White. This is why I think to overcome the default and automatic assumptions White people often internalise, we need to include White as a description for a person when trying to put a name to a face, that way we can start to eliminate the assumption that if no skin colour is mentioned that person is therefore White.
If, however, you believe it would be better to avoid mentioning someone’s racial or ethnic background altogether and just work on eliminating our assumption someone is White from the start of a description or when we’re introduced to a character in a book, then please let me know – I know it needs to be ALL races and ethnicities mentioned, or none at all, and I’m still trying to understand which one is better so please do let me know your thoughts.
6. Eliminate unnecessary references to a person’s ethnic or racial background – When not describing someone to help put an image to a face (like how I’ve described above), it’s important to not reference a person’s skin colour, ethnicity, or class, as a way of talking about them or pointing them out. For example, if you’re pointing out someone in a store, instead of saying, “The Black man in the shop”, you could say, “The tall person in the blue jeans standing by the vegetable aisle”. Or when describing what the people in your class were like, instead of saying, “There were a lot of Asian people in the class”, when you don’t know if they are all Asian, which could make people feel excluded or unimportant, simply describe the people in the class as individuals. Use characteristics that are not harmful or stereotypical, such as “there were a lot of sporty people in my class”, or “there were some really nice people there”. The difference between this point and the one above is knowing when it is simply unnecessary to reference someone through their ethnic or racial background, and knowing that if you do need to reference it, you need to make sure you’re either referencing everyone by their skin colour and ethnicity, or no one. If you’re also unsure on race and ethnicity terminology and what to say and not to say, I found this amazing resource that you can read to help you –
7. “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” – Not everyone has a mum, not everyone has a dad. Some people have two dads, some people have two mums, some people only have a single parent, some have neither, some have step-parents, some have divorced parents, some have foster parents, and some have adoptive parents. This means not all families may celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and being careful to acknowledge not everyone celebrates these holidays, or if they do, allowing people to have whatever day or word choice they choose and remembering that not having a typical Mother’s or Father’s Day is normal for a lot of people. Again, it’s about eliminating our defaults and the standard idea of a family is often a mum, a dad, and usually two kids. It’s about recognising this default, stamping it out in our minds and the language we use, and being inclusive that the vast majority of people do not conform to all our internalised defaults and being appreciative and considerate of this.
8. Not all women have periods, and not all who have periods are women – It’s essential to continue expanding awareness of trans people’s lived experiences, including all those who are menstruating while being a man. There are currently 1.4 million transgender people in the United States, which includes a lot of men who menstruate, making this statement and awareness more important than ever. Not to mention that having a period for someone who does not identify as a woman, could be so stressful and emotionally heart-breaking, the least cis-gender people can do is disassociate menstruation with women. There are also some cisgender women (assigned female at birth) who don’t have periods due to menopause, stress, disease, or a hysterectomy. So all in all, it’s important to change “women who menstruate” to “people who menstruate”. This is a brilliant article that articulates everything on this subject so much better than me:
Here is also an incredible article about Kenny Ethan Jones who fronted a period campaign and his experience of being a man who menstruates, which I highly recommend you read:
Things I haven’t changed, but I have picked up from other people:
9. Marriage is marriage – If, when talking about someone who is gay, I’ve asked, “Are they married?”, the number of times the reply I get is, “they’re gay”, exasperates me so much. Asking if someone is married is not asking about their sexuality, it is asking if they are married – and by responding with their sexuality, you are answering a question that was never asked. It does not matter if they are gay or straight, asexual or bisexual, trans or queer, none of that has anything to do with whether or not someone is married. However, I can appreciate the fact it is only in the last few years some major countries like Australia and Northern Island legalised gay marriage, so for the older generation I understand why marriage for you used to only apply to opposite-sex couples, but times have changed dramatically – marriage is no longer something that only applies to straight couples in developed countries. So if someone is asking you or someone else if a certain person is married, you don’t need to answer with “they’re gay” any more than you need to answer with “they’re straight”, and also try not to use the terminology “same-sex” marriage or “gay-marriage” unless talking about it in context (like here) – in an everyday conversation, it’s just marriage. I think this point also brings it back to point 6: just like how you need to eliminate using unnecessary references to someone’s ethnicity or racial background, eliminate using unnecessary references to someone’s sexuality.
10. Assuming all women want children – Not all women want children, and there is nothing wrong with this – unlike the horrible stereotypes and assumptions out there, it does not make them selfish, career hungry, or shallow. The assumption that all women want children means I nearly always hear the phrase, “When you have kids”, rather than, “If you choose to have kids”. Or if you tell someone, “I don’t want to have children”, there is nearly always a response of, “You might change your mind” or “Why don’t you want children?” – to the last question, I always say, “Why do you want children?”. The answer is nearly always, “because I do”, and the same goes for women who don’t want children, “because I don’t”. If you shouldn’t have to explain why you do want children, then don’t expect women who don’t want children to explain why they don’t. This also extends to make sure you don’t assume a married woman has children, and if she doesn’t, don’t assume she is going to have children or plans to have them. We really need to change this assumption and realise having children or not having children is a choice from ground zero, therefore, there is no reason for you to assume one choice over the other.
11. Assuming all British people are White – The thing I love most about my country is that when I think of a British person, I simply don’t think of one person – I think of a range of people; all different colours, shapes, sizes, cultures, religions, accents, ethnicities and nationalities. I think of how during a World Cup or the Olympics, you could walk through London and find flags and groups of people from so many different countries. I am going to assume that most people who read my blog and who are reading this, are not people who ask Black people or People of colour, “Where they are really from?”. Not only is this racist but it is also ignorant to the fact Britain today (and America) is made up of a whole range of colours. A British person is not a White person. A British person cannot be defined to one person or image because we all look so different, and that is amazing and beautiful.
12. Avoiding using the words “guys or gentleman” for a group of men/boys, and “girls or ladies” for a group of women/girls – This not only refers back to using non-gendered words as in points 1 and 2 but also recognising that as a woman, being called “girls” or “ladies”, especially by a man, is incredibly patronising. Try and replace phrases like “ladies and gentlemen” with “guests”, “everyone”, “folks”, or “guys, gals and non-binary pals” (my best friends favourite alternative!).
13. Refer to a woman in power with her job title, not her sex – I find it frustrating when people call and refer to a woman in power as a “lady” or “woman”, such as Nicola Sturgeon or Theresa May, but will never call a man in power, such as Boris Jonson, a “gentleman” or “man” – they would always refer to Boris Jonson as the “Prime Minister” (because that is what he currently is). So if a woman in power has a position title, such as Doctor, Architect, Politician, Engineer, or Designer (just to name a small few), use her position title when referring to her, or her name, but not her sex or alternative references to her sex such as girl, lady, etc.
14. Disability - There are so many “do’s” and “don’t” when it comes to disability. For example, if someone you know uses a wheelchair, try not to use the phrases “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound”, as wheelchairs can enable mobility and greater independence. Instead, say “uses a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-user”. As there are so many, instead of writing them all out here, I found an amazing website that has an extensive and thorough list for checking your language and understanding what you say and don’t say:
Always keep in mind though that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and what’s acceptable for one person may not be for another.
Also, one of the most important things to remember is that the majority of disabilities are not visible – please never assume in order to live with a disability you must use a wheelchair. This goes for disability parking spaces too – don’t judge someone on their ability to walk in validation to their needing the parking space. If they have a blue badge, then clearly, they need the space, and it’s not your place to determine otherwise (leave it to the professionals who hand out the blue badges). If you want to understand a little more about invisible illnesses, I have written a blog post, “The Stories Behind What You Can’t See”, which you can read here. Lastly, disability jokes are not funny and never will be, nor is impersonating someone with a disability. If you hear someone making fun of a disabled person or using offensive language, like everything else on this list here:
Please be brave: stand up and call them out on it – do what is right. I know there have been times when I have called people out, and there are times when I haven’t, and I’m more aware than ever that I need to always call people out – even if it makes things uncomfortable (which it often has), this is the only way we can change. Remember though, if you do stand up and call someone out, do it kindly and gently and with as much compassion as possible (maybe even using examples of when you made the same mistakes) – most people who say offensive or inconsiderate things often just don’t realise what they are saying is hurtful or exclusive to some people, or don’t realise that terminology is no longer used or acceptable in this day and age. If you like this blog post or find one or two points or articles helpful, send it on to that person if that’s an easier way to help educate them. There will be a very small amount of people though who are just racist, or homophobic, or transphobic, and no matter what you say to them, you simply won’t get through – and it’s important for you to determine which battles are worth fighting for and using your energy to help the people who are open-minded and want to learn and change.
I hope you have found this post helpful and maybe you have learnt something and realised ways you need to change your own language to be more inclusive. I again want to express that I am by no means an expert at all, and I will definitely get things wrong, so if you see something that doesn’t sit right with you or you feel I haven’t represented you well, then please do speak up (leave a comment on this post or contact me privately): I want to learn and grow as much as you. I also have a long way to go, and I am aware that educating myself is not a one-way route; it is a never-ending road and minefield, but I must take responsibility to educate myself and to not stop doing that to the best of my ability. Our world is also always changing, so the language we use must also always change, and I want to be awake and open to changing with it.
Metta, E xx