Building inclusion - the power of language

Jo Tilly
Jo Tilly, Research and Policy Manager, DCA

There is big P politics and small p politics. In the big P political sphere, we often hear catchcries or language that is deliberately evasive or ambiguous - it’s a world where every ministerial utterance is focus-grouped or spin-doctored.

But language is also powerful in our everyday interactions – in the small p world of workplace and community politics. At its most obvious, language can be used to deliberately exclude or attack groups of people – most evident in the case of overt abuse such as racist, sexist or homophobic language. This is clearly the case, even though those that use such language frequently deny that this was their intention.

It was racist. Full stop. 

The recent furore over abuse of Adam Goodes by AFL spectators was partly so notable for the extent to which his detractors took to the media to heatedly justify why this behaviour was not, in fact, racist. Yet it was – and unmistakeably so. Together with numerous other organisations, DCA has joined with the Australian Human Rights Commission to state our full support for Adam Goodes, and to condemn racism in any sphere of our society. That clearly racist behaviour is being publicly debated reveals the complexity of the relationship between bias, power and language. It is easy enough for those not on the receiving end to suggest that victims of racist (or sexist or homophobic) language should toughen up, as so many commentators have done in the Adam Goodes case, but only those who have experienced the power of abusive language are genuinely in a position to comment on its impact. As Noel Pearson memorably highlighted, when speaking at Gough Whitlam’s funeral of his legacy in creating the Racial Discrimination Act, “Only those who have known discrimination truly know its evil”.

Sticks…stones…and words, can hurt

In a large scale survey carried out for VicHealth in 2011, more than half of the survey respondents from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds reported being called racist names, teased, or subjected to jokes or comments that relied on racial stereotypes. The survey identified that people who had experienced racism exhibited quantifiably decreased mental health, with people who had experienced medium or high levels of racism showing objective signs of high or very high psychological distress. This finding is consistent with other research suggesting that discrimination and stigmatization are major causes of ill health, and not only in relation to race based discrimination. Clearly, the impact of words is not insubstantial.

DCA’s Working for the Future research found an alarming incidence of racism at work, which shows that employers also need to act on this workplace issue.

But the power of language can also be seen in the ways in which we include or exclude others, as well as exclude, vilify or attack them in an overt or deliberate way. Language might not necessarily be overtly discriminatory, but the words we choose are still a fundamental driver of culture and have the capacity to create an environment which limits the participation and inclusion of particular groups of people.

Not all language is equal, but all groups are  

There has been considerable debate recently about some of the ways language impacts on women, particularly in creating workplace cultures that limit their participation and advancement.  A number of media articles have highlighted the kinds of words that are only used to describe women – words like bossy, bitchy, abrasive, high-maintenance, feisty, pushy and hysterical – none of them good.  

In the context of the workplace, research shows that this kind of language is not only patronising and frustrating, but genuinely damaging to women’s careers. Research conducted for Fortune magazine found “systematic bias” in the language used in feedback given to high performing women in performance reviews, compared with their male counterparts.

Language that limits people is, of course, not only the lot of women. For people with disability, it is not only the impact of words such ‘spaz’ and ‘retard’ used as terms of abuse – or even in casual conversation – that cause harm. Patronising, infantilising and condescending language is frequently the experience of people with disability and can be critically damaging to their capacity to be considered self-determining human beings.  The late Stella Young reflected on this issue in 2014, shortly before her death writing “I am not a snowflake. I am not a sweet, infantilising symbol of the fragility of life. I am a strong, fierce, flawed adult woman.” 

The power of language in the classroom and playground is illustrated in research carried out by the University of Western Sydney examining the experiences of young people who identify as gender diverse or whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual.  In the national survey of more than 1000 young Australians in these categories, nearly three quarters had to cope with homophobic/transphobic language being used by their ‘friends’ and nearly two thirds had experienced verbal abuse. The researchers identified serious impacts on the health and wellbeing of these young people, finding evidence that close to half admitted thinking about self-harm and/or suicide, a third of participants had actually harmed themselves, and 16% had attempted suicide.

US author and activist Rita Mae Brown wrote that “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” But I would argue that while many people fail to consider the power of the language they use, this power is far from hidden. In both the world of formal politics, in the community, and in institutions such as our schools and workplaces, language has the power to impact on the way we see and experience the world every day.

DCA proudly supports the ‘Racism: It Stops with Me’ campaign.

By Jo Tilly

Jo is the Manager of Research and Policy at Diversity Council Australia. Prior to joining DCA, Jo worked in social policy in the government and community sectors: for the NSW Government advising on women’s and health issues, for the Australian Human Rights Commission working on sex and age discrimination and for the NSW Public Service Association as the women’s industrial officer.

In her spare time she teaches ethics to school kids, is a health advocate for NSW mums and babies, cares for her father who has a physical disability, studies for a masters degree, and wrangles three children.

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