The Language of Diversity
Oftentimes, when issues of diversity appear as controversies or crises within educational or other institutions, they can be traced back to language: about the ways that groups of people are talked about and categorized, about the ways that people want to be identified, or about the intentions and consequences of naming and labeling. It is important for students to analyze these basic connections between language and how people are represented as different. Assignments or discussions should allow time for students to think about “political correctness,” stereotyping, and sensitive, unbiased ways to refer to groups of people. Students need to realize that language is not neutral and that, therefore, a person’s gender, race, and class do matter when it comes to analyzing the consequences of particular ways of talking about groups. APA and MLA style guidelines about using inoffensive language are one way to raise students’ awareness about the subtle role language plays when shaping readers’ perspectives about people. Another way to begin is to have students collect and analyze statements about language use that are created by schools or other organizations. Kansas State’s “Principles of Community” is one an example. Students should identify the key assumptions behind these types of official documents. For instructors who are interested in exploring language and human difference, Rosina Lippi-Green’s English in America is an excellent place to start. Dennis Baron’s language-related blog, Web of Language(http://illinois.edu/db/view/25), is a good place to look for issues related to language and human difference.
Provide time for students to examine the APA and MLA guidelines (or the guidelines governing another discipline) that help writers and researchers refer to groups of people without being offensive and without making biased and undesirable assumptions about these people. Allow students to discuss why certain phrases or labels might appear offensive. Students can begin by discussing what is problematic about these following examples from the APA Publication Manual and what the writers could do to remove biased language and labeling:
• The participants in the study were 10 men and 16 females. (71)
• The client is usually the best judge of the value of his counseling. (70)
• Participants were 300 Orientals. (70)
• The client’s behavior was typically female. (70)
• Research scientists often neglect their wives and children. (71)
• The disabled person (75)
• The learning disabled (76)
• The individual confined to a wheelchair (76)
Students could then find a text from the Internet or another source and, keeping the MLA and APA guidelines in mind, edit it.
Students can also conduct further research on the history or use of these labels that represent difference, including:
• Disability (or, “with a disability”) (versus “handicapped”)
• Gay (versus “homosexual”)
Students can also choose a particular website or document and search for these terms, analyzing how they are being used and figuring out to what degree they are upholding the APA and MLA guidelines. The Kansas State University website may be a good place to start.
Students read and discuss several authors who write about language and their own personal experiences with language, including Gloria Anzaldua, Bell Hooks, Victor Villaneuva, and Amy Tan. Then, students contribute to these conversations about language and identity by writing a narrative in which language plays an important role. For example, students might write about an experience in which language helped them define themselves as members of a specific community or, on the other hand, about an experience in which language was used to exclude them from a community. Students should be able to highlight the significance of their experience when it comes to talking about language. In this unit, students will grapple with these following concepts:
• Standard American English
• Vernacular English
• Dialect, Accent
• Monolingualism, Bilingualism
• Language and Stereotyping