Bias-Free Language

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We’ve long known that using gender-neutral language (aka: gender-inclusive language or non-sexist language) is the basic expectation in everyday communication–written or not. Long gone are the days when masculine pronouns were used by default when no gender was known. And gone, too, are the days of awkward and repetitive he/she and his/her constructs now that the singular “they” is the grammatical norm and formally endorsed by APA Style. But what about other contexts in which bias is evident in the language used? What’s the approach in those situations?

APA Style makes understanding appropriate usage clear by stating on its official website: “Writers . . . must strive to use language that is free of bias and avoid perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes. Just as you have learned to check what you write for spelling, grammar, and wordiness, practice reading your work for bias.” 

Indeed, bias-free language is needed to be inclusive of all people, and it may require some effort on the part of writers to rid their work of such usage so as not to offend or demean others. Some of the language bias concerns usage contexts that have been standard for a long time, and in this regard, writers need to break those old habits. Unintentional or not, using terms such as policeman, mailman, mankind, . . . exclude women who surely serve and protect communities, deliver mail, and walk this planet. There’s no doubt that progress has been made using bias-free language with these examples as police officers, mail carriers, and humankind are not new terms, but what about language bias that doesn’t concern gender?

One classic example is the word “handicapped.” Writing “handicapped” or “handicapped person” is biased because it makes a statement about the whole person, not the condition. APA Style recommends person-first language in which “the person is emphasized, not the individual’s disability or chronic condition.” With this in mind, phrasing such as “person living with a disability” would be the preferred language. If you are having doubts about the bias–and certainly to some, the offensiveness–of terms like “handicapped” or “disabled,” consider that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term “crippled” stopped being used. While “handicapped” may be a shade better than “crippled,” it still expresses a bias. 

Some complain about excessive political correctness, but that seems more of an excuse to continue practices that are simply not sensitive to the needs of others. For decades people debated whether the name of the National Football League team Washington Redskins was demeaning to Native Americans, and now that that name has been finally removed, I guess we know the view that most people hold that prompted ownership to make the change. I’ve always been amazed at how strenuously some people will argue a view when it doesn’t affect them personally. After all, most of the folks who saw nothing wrong with “Redskins” as a team name were not Native American.

And I think this mindset gets to the heart of the matter: If certain usage doesn’t impact people personally, then many don’t see the problem. Take for example the word “refugee.” In 2005 my family and I evacuated the city of New Orleans a day before Hurricane Katrina ravaged our city. When it became clear what was happening, we headed to Maine where we had family, and it was along the way that news reports kept speaking of Katrina refugees fleeing the devastated areas. “Refugee”? At a hotel in Pennsylvania, the woman checking me in remarked after I handed her my driver’s license, “You’re one of the ‘refugees.’” The word was not intended to be used in a demeaning manner, but that is exactly how it felt. After all, “refugee” is usually used to refer to those feeling a country for fear of persecution, not their own country. 

The use of biased language is as American as apple pie and baseball, and according to the University of New Hampshire’s 2015 “Bias-Free Language Guide” that has been removed due to backlash, such bias includes the word “American” because using the word as I have is not inclusive as it makes the assumption that an “American” is someone from the United States when other countries are part of the Americas. To be fair to UNH, its president at the time, Mark Huddleston, issued a statement saying the language guide was not policy and that he, too, was troubled by the guide flagging “American” as a biased word. 

Still, it makes me wonder: Is the word “American” biased? Why do people from the United States refer to themselves as “Americans”? Does someone from Mexico refer to themself as “American” or “Mexican”? Who does “American” include and according to whom? When I fill out an online form and have to select my country, “America” is not an option. Think of the logic: Someone from Italy is Italian. A person from Canada is Canadian. If you are from Greece, you are Greek. Yet if you live in the United States, you are an American.

In APA Style, the aim is not to create controversy but, rather, to guide writers to use language that is “accurate, clear, and free from bias or prejudicial connotations.” Avoiding the use of imprecise and overarching terms and using instead the terms the people being discussed use themselves is a positive step toward inclusivity and precision in language use.

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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