Editor-in-Chief's Note/Meta: While I would have preferred not to have our first article be written by a cisgendered heterosexual white male, I found Beau's article to be really helpful and wanted to help him migrate it off of Medium.com, a bourgeois, hypercapitalistic platform that supports rapists and rape culture. Thank you, Beau, for donating this article to us!
content warning: anti-disabled people/ableist or otherwise systemically oppressive language
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Hi, I’m Beau.
I’m a cisgendered heterosexual white male. In learning about feminism I’ve learned a lot about privilege—and the traits I listed come with a certain amount of privilege in terms of being able to use language without fear of reprisal or critique for word choice. What I’m getting at is that people with privilege don’t get called out for using problematic language often enough—and consequently are too often unaware that the language we use reinforces systemic oppression.
Back in 2012 I posted a link to an article on Twitter that mentioned “gender verification testing” in the context of the Olympics. In my tweet I shortened it to “gender testing” and a nice person on the Internet let me know that what I really meant was sex testing (because gender is a social construct). I thanked them and then dove into a rabbit hole to read about sex and gender.
This brief interaction was the catalyst for examining my word choice and beginning to understand the impact those choices can have on others. It reminded me that people pay attention to the things we say in public and that the precision of our words matters.
I grew up in a chaotic family environment and I came out of it with a fear of conflict, the desire to "be a good person," and a pathological desire to avoid fucking up in public—but the best reason to care about what we say is that if we’re careful, we can avoid hurting and alienating people and reinforcing systemic oppression, and make our various communities more inclusive spaces.
Along the way, we also gain precision of language and hurt fewer people.
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Things I’ve stopped saying:
1. "he/him/his" by default
If I’m giving a hypothetical example now, it’s always gender-neutral or "she/her/hers." "They/them/theirs" are fantastic, gender-neutral pronouns that let the listener imagine whom- or whatever they want. The tech industry doesn’t need any more men and I’ve responded by leaving them out of my examples.
I personally prefer gender-netural pronouns to alternating gendered pronouns for each example.
I’m reading a book now where the author alternates between he and she pronouns. It’s distracting—part of me wants to keep a mental count to see if the author is favoring one over the other or if they’re being used in stereotypical ways. Alternating between male and female pronouns also excludes people who don’t identify as male or female.
2. "weak, lame"
I used to rely heavily on these as words of commiseration—e.g., “Aw, I’m sorry, that’s so lame.” These words are ableist because they rely on comparisons to physical strength and disability. They’re also not specific, and so in avoiding them, my language has become more precise.
3. "crazy, insane, sane"
These words are also ableist, along with being terribly imprecise. “That’s insane,” I’d say, when I could have said stunning, surprising, unprecedented, or any number of more precise words.
I see “sane” pop up all the time in software development, too: “the sane approach is to sort before iterating," as if to say that anyone implementing it differently must be "insane."
Note from sui: A good alternative to this dichotomy of ableist slurs is "reasonable/unreasonable," or "rational/irrational."
“Crazy” is the one I probably had the hardest time removing from my vocabulary. Often, I’d find myself responding to someone with: “Oh yeah, I heard about that! So crazy. Oops, sorry, not crazy”—and then I’d get to explain that I was no longer saying “crazy,” and briefly explain why. So, as hard as it was to stop saying this word, the process of stopping also helped me spread the ideas about why it’s a hurtful and ableist word.
Note from sui: I tend to use "intense" or "wild" instead of "crazy/insane" in this way. Ableist slurs contribute to a greater system that makes neuroatypical people feel horrible about themselves and prevents them from seeking often life-saving help, along with validating their mistreatment and abuse by anyone, including those "professionally" trained and employed to help them!
4. "girls" when I mean "women"
I stopped saying “girl” or “girls” in any instance where I was actually referring to a woman or women. Referring to women as "girls" is infantilizing. I refer to women as “women” around my “bro” friends and I don’t think they’ve even noticed the change.
I don’t have a good replacement for “girlfriend," though.
Note from sui: I actually say "womanfriend." "Ladyfriend" works, too.
5. "[you] guys"
I still see this one everywhere, but I’ve stopped saying it because despite what anyone says, I don’t think it’s gender-neutral at all. When you address or refer to mixed-gender groups as "guys," you reinforce maleness as the default. Instead I say “you all,” “y’all," “peeps," or “folks."
This one was also firmly entrenched in my vocabulary, but with persistence, I was able to eliminate it entirely. I won’t even refer to all-male groups as “guys” anymore, and again I don’t think my “bro” friends have noticed. npm has gone as far as to have a "guys" jar, which I think is awesome.
I stopped using these because I don’t want to reinforce positive connotations for white and negative connotations for black. I switched to “allowed”/“disallowed” and “included”/“filtered”.
Note from sui: This was actually something new I learned from reading Beau's article! I'm obsessively sensitive to language, but I'd never thought about the connotations of "blacklist/whitelist" before.
7. “black and white”
For the same reasons as "blacklist/whitelist." Now, I usually say "clear-cut"—or "nuanced," for its opposite.
Note from sui: Some suggestions I have on alternative words for this concept are: dichotomous, binarist, and oppositional.
These come up often when talking about databases, and my own decision to stop using them came after seeing this pull request on the Django project. (Note from sui: Warning: Many of the comments on this pull request are awful and possibly triggering, opposing the wording change from "slave"; please proceed with caution.)
I’ll usually use “primary/secondary” unless there are other words in use on a given project (like “replica”).
9. "owned, pwned, owns"
If you’re not familiar, this is early internet slang: “Dude, you just got owned!” Getting “owned” is a bad thing, though if something "owns," it means it’s a good thing. I can’t hear this and not think about toxic masculinity and/or slavery, though, so I stopped saying it.
Note from sui: This was another set of words to avoid I learned from Beau that I had never even thought about before!
10. "drinking the kool-aid"
I didn’t realize this was a reference to the Jonestown massacre, but once I did, I stopped saying it.
11. "blind spot"
I caught myself saying this just today. I don’t have a great replacement (I went with "missing piece"). I think it’s problematic because it equates lack of sight with ignorance.
Note: Since publishing this, "blind spot" is the phrase with which people seem to have the biggest issue. I think many people might disagree about whether it’s ableist or not, but personally, I’m erring on the side of caution. You’re free to make your own call. The argument seems to be that "the blind spot" is a physical artifact of the human eye. Well, I would have included “tone-deaf” on this list if it was something I ever said, and there are genetic and physical components to human tone deafness—but I’d much rather not use "tone deaf" as a metaphor out of respect for my deaf friends than argue with them about semantics.
Note from sui: "Blind spot" and other sight metaphors are ableist because they make fun of lack of sight ability, which is a disability. As a writer, I actually struggle with finding substitutes for some sight metaphors, and similar ability-based metaphors such as "step back," etc. I also have argued with people over "tone deaf" as well, as many people use it but I find that most people don't realise (or think) it's ableist. I believe in you, the reader, and I believe that you can find more creative, accurate, and disabled-people-inclusive (non-ableist) diction than these phrases.
12. "preferred pronouns"
If someone specifies their pronouns, then those are their pronouns—end of story. It’s an attribute, not a preference—so I’ve dropped the "preferred" when talking about them. I also list my pronouns on my Twitter bio, because I want to normalize the behavior of listing pronouns. Additionally, when given the choice, I specify my honorific as “Mx.,” because I want to normalize that option too (because there’s no “unmarked” choice for women, and people who don’t identify as male or female need an option as well).
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In writing about this, it’s my hope that some of you will also choose to interrogate the words you use. You may find that your word choice is easier to change than you think—I believe the effort is worth it, to make our communities more inclusive.
In addition to interrogating my own word choice, I’ve also committed to speaking up when other people use problematic language. I’ve gently called out many companies and individuals via Twitter and email and will collect some of the anonymized interactions in another post; I think examples might be helpful. I should note that I think this work should be done by individuals with privilege and/or existing community members, because I think it’s our job to foster inclusivity, not the job of anyone being oppressed or excluded.
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I must thank Lydia Brown for their post "Ableism/Language"; it was very helpful to me in learning about ableist language.
Note from sui: Lydia Brown's post is a very thorough and seminal one that has influenced me a lot!
Additionally, I have to thank Jennifer Kesler for her post Replacing "crazy" for ableism and preciseness of language.
If I credited every single person from whom I have learned about problematic language via Twitter the list would be very long, but Ashe Dryden specifically has been a great influence on me. Thanks, Ashe!
I also have to thank sui sea for their fantastic work in editing the new version of this piece and providing a home for it, as well as greatly shaping my knowledge of inclusive language through our many conversations, and their own writing and activism✨.
Originally published on June 17th, 2015.