Language matters, yet I’m still offended
KELLY KENNEDY | ASST. ART DIRECTOR | THE USD VISTA | @ktaykennedy
The Language Matters campaign is the brainchild of the University of San Diego’s United Front Multicultural Center (UFMC). According to the UFMC website, Language Matters was created to raise awareness about the importance of using inclusive language.
Trends toward political correctness have been spreading across college campuses nationwide. The UFMC echoes these calls for more inclusive language with its campuswide poster campaign. These Language Matters posters featured photos of USD students, faculty, and staff next to phrases the persons found offensive followed by an explanation of why those words are inappropriate. These efforts across campus are valiant attempts to encourage students to use inclusive language, yet some of them still offend me.
Yes, parts of the Language Matters campaign offend me. If I were a more adamant language vigilante, this op-ed would focus on what could be done to repair the great injustice that has been committed against me. Perhaps I would demand an apology, tear the offensive posters down, or sew a large red “O” to my clothes so that I may bear my martyrdom in a manner similar to Hester Prynne.
On the contrary, the point of this article is to explain why I’m offended by certain posters and to stop there. I will respect the right of the UFMC to define what it believes to be offensive language and why, but I by no means have to agree with the posters or the intent behind them. Let me explain.
One of the posters displayed on campus that I call into question shines a light on how we view our race and ethnicity.
“We don’t say what are you? because we are more than our skin color and a nation of immigrants,” a poster said.
There are definitely appropriate ways to ask what a person’s ethnicity is. Perhaps bluntly asking “what are you?” isn’t the most sensitive, however, other wording is equally, if not more offensive.
Last December, as I studied in the UFMC with a friend, an unfamiliar woman my age walked into the room, made eye contact with me, and made a beeline to my table. As I looked up, she blurted out a question that unnerved me.
“What’s your mix?” the woman said.
Am I a dog? Some kind of cross-cultural mutt? Oh yes, half German Shepard, half beagle, if you must know. To be clear, I’m half-Mexican and half-Irish with tan skin and a name that’s about as Irish as it gets. I’m proud of that.
That phrasing aside, America’s identity as a nation of immigrants is fundamental to the development of multiculturalism that we see today. Over the course of several hundred years, immigrants of black, white, brown, and countless other skin tones have struggled to make something of themselves. While not all have been able to do so, many have bettered their lives and contributed to the growing and changing fabric of American culture, my own family included.
Yes, my appearance makes my racial background ambiguous. Yes, it’s okay to ask about it in a friendly way, especially because it gives me a chance to share my cultural heritage. In fact, the UFMC’s slogan is “Embracing Identities. Empowering Communities.” I don’t see anything wrong with embracing your race and answering the questions that people may have about it.
Another one of the signs posted on campus that concerns me actually contradicts the one that I just discussed.
“We don’t say I don’t see color because it undermines the lived experiences and visibility of minoritized groups,” the poster said.
So people should not ask about your racial identity, but they also can’t ignore it? And don’t get me started on the word minoritized.
Yet another poster on campus frustrated me.
“I don’t say slut because it is used to shame women for being sexually equal to men,” the poster said.
This explanation of the word slut would offend me 10 times more if I were a man. At first, I agreed with this one; I support women’s sexual liberation or whatever you’d like to call it. Then, I read the explanation a few more times. Slut is used as a derogatory term for women who sleep around or have been around the block, if you catch my drift. By characterizing this term as shaming women for being sexually equal to men, the poster assumes that all men are promiscuous, which only reinforces the incorrect stereotype that all men are sex mongers.
This offends me because I know that that’s absolutely not the case. My male friends aren’t constantly trying to hook up with other people, unable to hold back their surging testosterone levels and plummeting self control that this poster assumes they are controlled by.
Women displaying the same behavior aren’t any less culpable for their actions than men. The assumption of men that this poster purveys reduces them to mere genitalia, and that is incredibly non-inclusive. Perhaps changing the poster to say “I don’t say slut because it is used to shame women for their sexual activity” would have been a more precise definition.
Posters that featured terms like welfare queen and food stamp baby confused most, if not all of my friends who had never heard of such terms. What about other offensive words? I’ve been called a spic, yet there’s not a poster on campus telling people that that’s offensive.
In short, language does matter, especially in an age when college students are prone to being offended by almost anything for almost any reason. There is some merit to the Language Matters campaign at USD. At the same time, I can’t help but desire a more thoughtful execution.
Maybe it’s not about inclusive versus exclusive, especially because picking a side sounds pretty darn exclusive to me. Instead, maybe it’s about a generation that is learning a lesson in respect and self-sufficiency.
Perhaps instead of posters regulating acceptable speech, we could have more basic respect for one another. This means respect for people’s cultural identity, opinions, especially if they clash with our own, and First Amendment right to express themselves, whether an organization deems this expression to be acceptable or not.
In an email responding to campuswide discussion about offensive costumes during Halloween, Yale professor Erika Christakis questioned university administration’s role in controlling costumes and student dialogue. Christakis summed this obsession with political correctness perfectly.
“Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” Christakis said.