How To Linguistically Never Exclude Someone Again

Beeld door Marije Wentink
Beeld door Marije Wentink
Pia Sophia (redacteur)
Pia Sophia (redacteur) • 19 feb 2022

When encountering someone, you automatically get an idea of how you will address them. Try to imagine it. By seeing certain facial or behavioral traits, your brain puts the one standing in front of you in a certain box. A box that is heavily colored by your frame of reference. That is how you know, without having to think about it, how someone needs to be addressed or spoken about. Without thinking about it, you talk about ‘her’ or ‘him’. After that first conclusion, you don’t think about it anymore. If you don’t do anything about it, your frame of reference will never expand. This is bad, because language is always developing. When you pretend this isn’t the case, things go wrong.

Gender diversity
When reading books that were modern half a century ago you’ll probably be shocked by the language used. I also catch myself thinking: “How could this not have been edited?!” Unfortunately, colored assumptions, the perpetuation of stereotypes and steadfastness in traditional ways of thinking are not limited to outdated prose. It’s still so ingrained in our society that it stands out when people approach you with an open mind. I remember being at a meeting last summer. We met in the heart of Amsterdam, a mix of artistic young millennials and old Gen Z-ers. Besides feeling at ease almost immediately, I was pleasantly surprised when someone introduced themselves, asked my name and immediately wanted to know what my pronouns are. That's a way to do it!

Cultural diversity
Fortunately, there is an increasing focus on pronouns these days and inclusive language  seems to be becoming the norm, at least among a growing group of the generation mentioned above. We now know that not everyone identifies with the binary system and consider this as normal. But what about other forms of diversity? One form of inclusive language that I haven’t seen anywhere consistently is the indication of cultural diversity. It still happens too often that people of color are spoken of as a deviation from "people". This is problematic for several reasons.

White people as the norm
By speaking of "people of color" and just "people", you are implying that "the normal human being" (though non-existent) is the white human. When we talk about the standard human that way, we mean “white people”. The fact that “people of color” are named separately implies a superiority. If you do not belong to “the ordinary person”, in this case the white person, then you are different. That is harmful, because belonging turns out to be a basic emotional need. Structural exclusion can be disastrous for a person's mental health. Even if you are not consciously excluded, you as a person with a non-Dutch cultural background will be declared subordinate by something as simple as a few words. Structurally. By everyone.

To prevent this, we also need to designate white people as such. So if you're not talking about "people" in general, but if you're talking about a group of white people, name it! Just like you would do with "people of color".

Not all people of color are equal
It’s not so easily solved by painting everyone who is not white with the same brush and referring to them as “a person of color”. In doing so, you nullify the experiences of Black people in relation to other people of color. The fact is that we speak of “people of color”, because we copied it from the United States. But in the United States you have a nuanced abbreviation that does not exist in most other countries: BIPOC. This stands for Black and Indigenous, and People of Color. This acronym recognizes that Black people and Native Americans experience racism on a different level than people of color who aren’t Black or Native American. Because we aren’t dealing with an indigenous population in the Netherlands, as in the United States, we cannot use the abbreviation BIPOC. Instead, we should speak of “Black people and people of color”. Black people experience racism in a different way than other people of color. This must be acknowledged.

Black with a capital B
You may notice that I write Black people with a capital B. I do that consciously. That too comes from the United States and is very clearly explained by Chanel Lodik in The Anti-Racism Handbook (see here what I said about that earlier). Why do I do that? Because in this context Black does not necessarily refer to color alone, but also to a shared cultural identity and common experiences. This doesn't mean there is only one Black culture, but that most Black people have similar experiences, especially when it comes to racism.

So why don't we write white people with a capital W? That's because in the white supremacy the letter W was always capitalized, to show that white people were superior to Black people. Of course we don't stand for that, so in this case we don't use a capital W.

Get the best out of yourself
Think back to that person you met at the very beginning of this article. Did you have an idea when I started talking about thinking in boxes? The next time you talk about “people”, “Black people and people of color” or “white people”, I hope you are aware of exactly what you want to say and how it comes across. And before you get lost in the maze of adjectives and whether or not to use them (hint: always use them when talking about “people” and never make assumptions): don't be afraid to make mistakes. The most important thing is that you recognize your own mistakes and learn from them. Because no matter how mobile and living language is, it only really changes if we all consciously start working with it.


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