In the nonprofit and education sectors, there is an increasing awareness and effort to produce communications that are inclusive and anti-racist.
But what happens when, in an effort to be more inclusive, we alienate the very people we are trying to connect with?
We’ve written on inclusivity best practices and here we want to share why adhering to them—without considering WHY—isn’t always right.
While developing messaging for our partner, National Federation of the Blind (NFB), we learned that one of our typical “best practices” was…not the best.
We always aim to shift from identity-first language—labeling people’s identity—to person-first language—acknowledging people first and then what they are experiencing second. Some examples of language shifts we’ve done with our clients:
From Identity-First: Homeless person
To Person-First: People experiencing housing insecurity
From Identity-First: At-risk kids
To Person-First: Students facing systemic racism
Why? Because when we label people by their experiences first, we subconsciously reduce them to that single experience, a mindset that “others” and excludes the very people we are trying to invite in.
So naturally, when we started our conversations with the National Federation of the Blind during strategic planning, we recommended this shift:
From Identity-First: Blind people
To Person-First: People experiencing blindness
Through conversations with our partners, themselves being blind, we learned this language would not work for the NFB, and for very good reason. Shifting to a person-first approach would have undercut one of their most important goals: empowering everyone, including blind people, to understand that being blind is not a negative attribute.
While we recognize some prefer person-first language when communicating about people with disabilities, we believe honesty and authenticity begin with how we convey who we are. The messages, paired with identity-first language, beautifully encapsulate who we are and what we do. Our usage of identity-first language is consistent with the language of the National Federation of the Blind and is one way to signal that we do not consider blindness or low vision to be negative attributes.
– National Federation of the Blind Training Centers
Being roundabout with their language would signal that blindness is something they should minimize in their identity. But their community has reclaimed the external label of blindness from a disability to a proud truth.
At Mission Minded, we get to learn and grow as consultants—and as people—through every client partnership. By reaching out and inviting perspectives into the conversation, particularly the viewpoint of those we are speaking about, we elevated their messaging to be more authentic and empowering than if we had settled for an “inclusivity best practice.”
Here’s another example of how following a “best practice” of inclusivity can have an exclusionary outcome.
The term “Latinx” has gained traction, especially in the nonprofit sector, as a gender-neutral term used to include the entire Latino or Hispanic community (Spanish nouns are gendered, and “Latino” carries a masculine suffix).
But A Pew Research Center report found that few people in the Latino actually use “Latinx” to describe themselves. As the report states:
A majority (61%) say they prefer Hispanic to describe the Hispanic or Latino population in the U.S., and 29% say they prefer Latino. Meanwhile, 4% say they prefer Latinx to describe the Hispanic or Latino population.
This topic raises many questions: Who decides the appropriate term for a community? When should language evolve? Do outsiders have any voice in helping a community determine what that community is called? Some in the community find comfort in using “Latinx,” and that should be respected. Others feel like it doesn’t represent them authentically as it doesn’t function linguistically or grammatically in Spanish, and that should be acknowledged and respected.
What should we all do to navigate this complexity? Invite in the people we are speaking about, and actively have these complicated—but essential—conversations. If you are trying to be inclusive but haven’t engaged the people you are trying to speak about, you’ve missed the point of inclusivity.
Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.
See all posts by Zach Hochstadt