Why Inclusionary Language Matters

Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!

I was saddened but unsurprised recently to encounter a discussion on a feminist website in which commenters were bemoaning the appearance of content about race, gender, disability, class, and other social justice issues on feminist sites. “Why can’t feminism,” commenters asked, “just be about women?”

Feminism is useless, in my mind, if it fails to recognize an overlapping and intersecting collection of injustices. Even if all that you care about is “women,” I sincerely hope that you mean “all women.” As a movement, feminism is primarily focused on issues which involve white, Western, able-bodied cis women. Some of the gains for women accomplished by feminism, as a movement, have also benefited women outside this narrow category, it’s true, but a lack of understanding about the fact that all women experience life quite differently and may in fact have different priorities and concerns is exclusionary. And, again, if you care about all women, this is a problem, because it means that you are hurting other women when you do not consider things like race, gender, disability, and class to be “women’s issues.”

Which brings me to the topic of inclusionary language. When you are a white, cis gendered, able bodied, Western feminist, you have a lot of safe spaces to go. Pretty much any space dedicated to “feminism” is safe for you, because there’s a very high chance that the people in charge of that space are like you and/or that many of the people in the site’s community are like you. When you are are a person of color, a person with disabilities, a person who transcends the gender spectrum, a person who is not from the West, a person of low social class, you have far fewer safe spaces to engage with if you are interested in feminism. In fact, the safe spaces of others may be directly damaging and harmful for you, as people who proclaim to care about “women” proceed to talk about people like you in a disparaging way. And, tragically often, to actively oppress you.

Racism, ableism, classism, cissexism, transmisogyny, transphobia, sexism, sizeism, and heterosexism are all problems in the feminist community. Many people who identify (or would like to identify) as feminists are victims of these problems. These are problems which some white, cis, middle class, able bodied, heterosexual feminists have recognized and are trying to fight, and some of these feminists identify as “allies” and try to include oppressed people in their feminism, to advocate for social justice, to recognize the need for justice for all people, not just for heterosexual white cis ladies.

Even people who are trying to be good allies mess up, though, and use exclusionary language. Many become extremely defensive and lash out when called on exclusionary behaviour. Others recognize that they have done something hurtful (sometimes doubly so in being exclusionary and then in being reactive to questioning from people who raise concerns). Some allies even feel bad about this, and apologize or make an effort to avoid making such mistakes in the future. The ally thinks that ou has done the right thing by doing this, but the ally does not necessarily recognize the harm that has been done. For the ally, it’s a slip, the use of a “bad word” or the failure to recognize a community of people in a supposedly inclusive discussion. For the person who has that word or phrase used as a slur every day, as a weapon every day, who is constantly deliberately excluded, seeing a supposed friend do it is a stab to the heart.

A not entirely unexpected stab to the heart, but still.

What do all of the following words or phrases have in common?

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

They’re all exclusionary. Some of these words are actively used today as insults, and some of them have a historical context of use as insults which oppress, silence, and marginalize large groups of people, some of whom happen to be women. Some of these terms are racist, some are sexist, some are classist, some are cissexist, some are heterosexist, some are ableist. (I deliberately haven’t used speciesist terms here because, while I think that there is a clear intersection between animal rights issues and feminism, others may disagree, and thus, may not think that using speciesist language is exclusionary.) Many of these words are a common part of the vernacular; I use “bitch” all the time, for example. Many are examples of subconsciously exclusionary terms, in that people use them thoughtlessly, without realizing what they are really saying.

All of them should not be used by people who claim to be feminists, if feminism for them is about advocating for all women and improving conditions for all women. I include myself in this admonition. Every time we use them, we engage in othering. We exclude The Other, and make it clear that we don’t actually care about the issues that other people may experience. We make it clear that our claims of ally status are just lip service.

At its core, feminism should be, to my mind, about justice. Justice for all women. Not just women who fit into a very narrow set of categories. And this is why we need to use inclusionary language. This is why we need to cultivate spaces which are truly safe for everyone. This is why we need to own our actions and apologize for them if they are hurtful. We cannot repair the damage we have done to other human beings, but we can work to prevent it in the future.

Lots of people like to defend exclusionary language. They say that they like using a term, or can’t come up with a good alternative, or don’t really see why they should have to change. “The word doesn’t really mean that anymore,” or “but I’m not really [pick your poison]ist, so it’s ok.” But, here’s the thing. Even if the word doesn’t mean that anymore, that doesn’t mean that it does not carry very negative implications. Even if someone thinks that the word is being used in a positive sense, it is still loaded with negative meaning. It does not mean that the word does not have a very loaded history. It does mean that every time you use it, you are unconsciously enforcing a system of oppression. You can participate in and even perpetuate a system of oppression without actively subscribing to it.

People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved. If we ever live in a society where trans hatred doesn’t exist, everyone who is cis gendered will lose privilege, for example. As the old saying goes, “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead,” and this appears to apply to social justice issues as well, though you would be hard pressed to find someone who openly admits it. Being informed that you are hurting people with your actions threatens people when they have something to lose in this fight. This is why people push back so strongly when they are informed that their word usage is hurtful. This is why people become defensive when they are asked why they failed to include different perspectives in discussions. This is why people get angry when they are called on their privilege.

You can believe with all your heart that sexism is terrible and evil, but when you call a woman a bitch, it kind of undermines your point. You can think that people with disabilities are oppressed and marginalized by society, and that this is wrong, but when you call something “lame,” you’re saying that you think it’s ok to continue oppressing people with disabilities. When you say that someone should “step up,” you are unconsciously erasing everyone in the population who cannot step, like wheelchair users and people who are bedbound. When you refer to someone or something as “insane” or “crazy,” you are using mental illness as a slur.

So stop it. Stop using exclusionary language. Start including people.

And stop trying to defend it. If you’re too lazy to find a better word or phrase to use, that’s your problem, not society’s. If you can’t be creative enough to think of a different word or phrase, a word or phrase which does not exclude or silence someone, you apparently have not heard of a thesaurus.

Crossposted on this ain’t livin’

By 8 October, 2009.    101, language  ,  


  1. Thank you for takin on sch an important and probably intimidating task. As someone who learned English as a second language, I especially appreciate the chance to improve not only my understanding but also my actual use of it. Knowing where the words came from, as well as becomming aware of how strongly many words are full of ableism is so important when you want to make sure you know what you are actally saying.

    (Do you know of simmilar “dictonaries” dealing with other “isms” and phobias? I would love to read those as well.

  2. Lauren, I can’t think of anything specifically which covers -isms and phobias, but I will keep my eye out for something; English is actually my second language too, and I have to say that etymology dictionaries have greatly enhanced my knowledge of English and its history, which helps me be more aware of my language use.

  3. The posts you have written about Evelyn Evelyn have been right on and I wish there was more more hard-hitting insight like this in mainstream news. But, I shouldn’t really be surprised.

    But, this pop culture discussion and your posts about sex and disability got me thinking about fairy tales. Often, women in the fairy tales have disabilities. I was wondering what you think about it because there is a lot to say.


  4. ““He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known.”

    This one made me giggle a little bit, because I play WoW a lot and usually refer to someone by their character’s gender if I don’t otherwise know, which has resulted in me referring to a lot of guys by female pronouns, and sometimes it has taken me a while to wrap my head around a person’s actual gender once learned. However, others tend to use the male regardless of character gender, so despite playing female characters most of the time, I’ve been referred to as male on multiple occasions. (Oddly, when presented with just a name, not an avatar, I will almost universally mistake someone for the opposite gender for some reason.)

    French always frustrated me a little, though, for similar reasons. While there’s both masculine and feminine third-party plural pronouns, for mixed groups you use the male.

  5. Amazing post, thank you! I will be pointing to this when need arises.