Make a Commitment to using Inclusive Language
I sat anxiously on a couch in the large living room of a ranch home in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. Directly across from me, on another couch, sat the eldest representatives of my future sister-in-law’s family. Behind them in rows and surrounding the entire room – gathered the rest of her entire extended family and closest friends, perhaps 50 people in total. Some of the younger people in the room were lighthearted and truly enjoying the event. But it was obvious from the stern looks I was receiving that several of the oldest members of the family were completely devoted to upholding this Kikuyu wedding tradition to its fullest extent. This was the Dowry and Negotiation process, and I was tasked with being the primary negotiator, representing my brother and his entire family.
Fortunately for me, (and for my brother) to my left sat Peter. Peter was a Kikuyu extended family member who guided us through the process, whispering advice into ear as I attempted to respond to questions asked by the elders.
I was one of the few white people in the room that evening. About 20 of my brother’s family and friends attended the wedding that weekend; the other 500 plus attendees were Kenyan and almost entirely non-white. There were several Kenyan friends and family members who went out of their way to reach out to us and include us that weekend, like Emmah and Audrey, who taught us Kikuyu wedding traditions and songs. Those who engaged with us and included us won’t soon be forgotten. They helped make the trip an absolute highlight of our lives.
The Importance of Inclusion
I am a white male, but I have been fortunate enough to have had several other experiences where I felt like I was standing out, where initially, I wasn’t completely sure if my presence was wanted. In those situations, when people have reached out to me and helped me feel included with the group, it has significantly altered my experience for the better. I always remember those who helped me feel included in those types of situations.
To be clear, by no means am I attempting to compare or equate my experiences to those often faced on a regular basis by some of the historically marginalized groups in our society. I am merely trying to point to an example of how I received a glimpse of the importance of inclusion. I can only imagine how difficult it must be at times for people who feel like they stand out within our industry. Especially when you consider the history of oppression that those groups have faced.
I believe that every single one of us can do our part to help those who fall in those groups feel more included. It is the right thing to do, and the act of doing so will also have both personal and professional benefits.
Commit to Using Inclusive Language
One of the ways that we can help others feel included is by educating ourselves and staying current with inclusive language. Ironically, in volunteering to blog about this topic at our ACEC Wisconsin Diversity & Inclusion Committee a couple months ago, I used a phrase that is often frowned upon in inclusive language resources – “I’d like to take a stab at that.” Another committee member kindly alerted me of this after the meeting ended. I am – and will continue to be – a work in progress on this topic. But I am eager to learn, and I want to get better. No one is perfect, but hopefully you are willing to make the effort.
An outstanding resource to reference is the American Psychological Association’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion – Inclusive Language Guidelines.
Specifically in the transportation engineering consultant world, I found a few relevant items from recent coordination that I have had. Here are just a few examples:
- Whenever possible, identify Indigenous people by their specific tribes, nations, or communities.
- Term to avoid – wheelchair-bound person, suggested alternative - person in a wheelchair
- Term to avoid – hearing-impaired person, suggested alternative – hard-of-hearing person
- Term to avoid – person with deafness, suggested alternative - Deaf person
- Term to avoid – survivor, suggested alternative – person who has been impacted by
- Term to avoid – poor people, suggested alternative – people whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold
- Term to avoid – take a stab at it – suggested alternative – give it a go
Making the Effort
There is a lot of valuable information in the guidelines, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed, perhaps discerning that it will be difficult to retain all this information for future use. But do not get frustrated – you have already taken an enormous step simply by viewing the resource. You are demonstrating that you want to learn and that you want to try to improve. You likely will not remember everything that you have read, and you will not be perfect going forward. But you are making the effort; and this will be apparent to others.
Not only will those from historically marginalized groups feel more included from your commitment to inclusiveness and inclusive language education, but you will also benefit both personally and professionally from this commitment. Don’t be surprised if adapting to this mentality leads to truer, more authentic relationships and interactions with people from historically marginalized groups. Unequivocally it has for me. And I am a work in progress.
I often think back of times in my life when I wish I had been more embracive in a situation. Going forward, I feel good about my plan to improve on my inclusiveness in both in-person encounters and in written correspondence. To me, it truly feels freeing to have made this commitment.