How language affects marginalized people

Paola Henriquez-Iraheta, Staff Writer

In a world with a diverse array of identities, including those of different sexuality, race, gender and ethnicity, it is difficult to avoid language that can offend minority groups. According to Merriam-Webster, political correctness is the act of following guidelines to prevent further discrimination against marginalized people. Although many believe that society has become excessively politically correct, the reality is that addressing language is a step in the right direction. In fact, there should be more awareness about the meaning and impact of words on underrepresented people.

“The benefits [of political correctness] are that you are not stereotyping. When you label groups of people who might not all be the same, it is unfair to the people that aren’t like that [stereotype],” junior Mahati Malladi said. “It doesn’t alienate the entire group.”

It can be extremely damaging to minority groups when people use certain words to describe them without fully comprehending the historical significance of the word. People may only use a word based on its denotation, which means the literal definition, and not consider its connotation, which is the feeling that a word invokes on an audience.

For example, although the term “illegal” is correct in a literal sense, many believe that it carries anti-immigrant sentiment. In comparison, “undocumented” also refers to the physical rights citizens get that are absent in some immigrant’s lives. Although both are accurate, the word “undocumented” is the preferred term because it avoids the negative connotation that accompanies the word “illegal.”

“Language is alive, and while that can sometimes be contentious or confusing, that’s what happens in a realm that can’t be controlled by rules,” English teacher Paula Saddler said.

For example, the word “retard” is derived from the Latin root meaning slow, but over time, it became altered as a derogatory term directed at those with intellectual disabilities. However, today, we only see the latter, which is why many people have a sensitive reaction when others use it.

The evolution of language is gradual, and the normalization of offensive language in the world is dangerous to all, specifically those the word targets.

When considering that LGTBQ+ rights at the moment are in danger under the Trump administration, it is especially important to be mindful of how we misuse terms regarding the LGTBQ+ community.

“As an insult, I don’t like it [when people say the word ‘gay’], even toward inanimate objects or toward people in touch with their feminine side,” senior Stephen Welhburg, an officer in the GSA club, said. “Everyone has different experiences, even with the same word.”

When people throw around the word “gay” in a negative context, it facilitates ignorance toward someone who has struggled with their sexuality or gender identity. This usage can also invalidate the adversity that people within the LGBTQ+ community have had to face.

As a society, we are responsible for the negative perception of different groups because of our participation, whether it be intentional or not, in the systematic oppression of minority groups. However, we can improve our tolerance through educating ourselves and understanding how language indefinitely influences the daily concerns of our entire population.

Among the most discussed debates surrounding political correctness is reclamation, in which people who have been historically oppressed use a word that has been commonly directed at them, to reverse the negative impact of the word itself and make it a tool of empowerment.

“I fully support the reclaiming of words; they only have the power that society gives them,” Wehlburg said. “We as a society can give people back the power that never should have been taken from them in the first place.”

Possible solutions to follow include allowing minority groups to decide for themselves what they consider to be oppressive or not. We need to listen with the intent to self-criticize our actions for the purpose of improving the status of minority groups within society. We need to recognize that not every person of color or minority may agree to what the majority of a group says, but that it is simpler to remove harmful language than continuing to fault others for being too sensitive.

The truth is that becoming a more progressive society is not a simple task. But, if we acknowledge that there is room for improvement, we can communicate better to educate each other on our own personal experiences and open our minds to the experiences of others.