Discriminatory Language: What Is It?

By Peter Connor

Maintaining a healthy multicultural learning environment begins with disallowing discriminatory language: language which denigrates or unequally values another. Without such language, students are far more likely to thrive scholastically and far less likely to shy away from contributing in the classroom. Here are the three most common types of which to be aware:

Stereotyping

Relegating a person (or a group of people) to a social category based solely on matching their obvious outstanding characteristics—race, religion, political party, physical features, sexual orientation, intellectual acumen, occupation or professional field—with a highly generalized and superficial description by which the entire category is generally identified.

Stereotyping strips individual characteristics from their owners, creating a shallow image of "sameness" for all members who fit the description. It oversimplifies, leading to misinterpretation and misrepresentation.

There will always be some base element of truth in a stereotype but that truth leaves much unsaid. It will not ever define an individual's true self or tell his or her true story. A plumber is a plumber, certainly, but might he or she not also be a church elder, play first-chair French horn in an orchestra, and/or speak five languages?

Labels

Applying unflattering, inaccurate or misleading terms to a social category of people and/or its individual members based on the language of prevailing stereotypes. There are two main types:

Derogatory Labels: insulting epithets flung at individuals and/or groups of people who share a specific ethnic, racial, gender or cultural status that is habitually prone to being on the receiving end of society's discriminatory practices.

Using such labels is a blatant, deliberate act designed to publicly demean and injure the targeted person or persons. It is thoughtless and exhibits a careless disregard for individual potential as well as the inherent promise of a minority population.

Imposed Labels: linguistic descriptors co-opted by a minority population—one without a strong enough presence, or power-base, to create their own—by a larger, prevailing population that does have the power and the presence.

Chicano, Hispanic, and Latino, for instance, are imposed labels. Though not necessarily injurious, they are often inaccurate, alienating, and divisive. Using such labels exhibits a lack of knowledge regarding the cultural evolution of a particular social category or group.

Gratuitous Specification

Highlighting an individual's race, religion, political party, physical features, intellectual acumen, occupation or professional field, etc., when it is contextually irrelevant, is poor form.

Emphasizing a specific detail about an individual, i.e., age, skin color, family background, etc., etc., when there is no real need to, promotes that detail to a point of relevance easily misconstrued as being significant when in fact, it is not.

The fact that Mary is a single mom, for instance, has no place in the remarks introducing her as the headline speaker at a global warming symposium; nor would it if she is a lesbian, Latino, first generation college graduate. What is relevant and significant is that Mary is a highly acclaimed atmospheric scientist. Preceding the relevant with that which is not is patronizingly demeaning.