In the last two weeks I participated in two separate conversations about diversity and inclusion on a social media platform. One thread had a multi-person dialogue about how including new voices that were previously invisible comes at the expense of excluding those who are already in the space. In the second thread, people were frustrated at the idea of using more gender-neutral language to make people feel more included, because of the inconvenience of change. In both of these situations, the unspoken thought that underpinned these sentiments was that intentional inclusion via different communications takes away from the voices and the power of those people who are already there. To put it in easier terms, many people push back against changing their words to be more inclusive because change takes effort, and, they think this effort of including others will exclude them. However, this is simply not true.
It is a blatantly harmful myth – one that I unpacked in a previous post. The core assumption in these conversation threads and in this myth is that inclusion is a zero-sum game. It seems to be a prevailing thought of many who have relatively more privilege and power than others in society. Without rehashing the entirety of that post, I will restate here that authentic, intentional inclusion is definitely not a zero-sum game. Intentional inclusion, in its fully glory, only adds to the overall power and perspective at any table, in any space. It makes our lives more vividly colorful and rich while moving toward a healthier and more equitable society for everyone, without too much effort (but yes, with some additional effort) from those already included and privileged. This is why it is important to constantly remember that inclusion, as a zero-sum game, is just a myth. And, the language and communications we use play a large part in can play a large role in dispelling this myth and moving all of us toward authentic, intentional inclusion. Here is why:
Language evolves over time; so should we as people.
When we think about the modern versions of any languages we use today, we know that they have changed over time and history. In a very real sense, they are indicative of our progress as a society or community. For instance, within American English, just within the last century, we moved away from using variations of the “n-word”, and, we moved toward less derogatory descriptive words for Black people.
The words we use are human-made constructs that we learn through exposure, practice, education and conditioning. This is why babies and toddlers pick up the words we use in front of them most often. This is why the vocabulary of different families is different. When we realize this simple truth, we can also realize that changing our language to make it inclusive is the simplest, yet one of the most effective ways in which we can practice intentional inclusion. Once we practice more inclusive language enough, it becomes a normative behavior. It grows our understanding and acceptance and celebration of the inclusion of all. The issue of convenience thus becomes moot.
The LEGupward Framework encourages and supports this change via the exploration of our implicit and explicit biases, on an individual and on a group level. A large part of this bias analysis includes a discussion of the specific words we use, and the words we could use to be more intentionally inclusive. By investing our time and energy in this effort, we can become more mindful of our language and vocabulary, across all spaces. We can become models of intentional inclusion, acceptance, and, belongingness.
Language as a mode of communication can be tailored toward intentional inclusion, but it is not.
Most of our conversations are not geared toward intentional inclusion. This is because in most conversations, we are not fully mindful. We just want to get our own thoughts out; we are conditioned to operate this way. Think about it. Most of the time, when we are in conversations with someone, we are already formulating the message of our response internally while the other person is still finishing their thought. We are conditioned to react instantly instead of responding intentionally. But, in practicing this, we often fail to realize how we might be unintentionally making other people feel like they don’t belong or that they don’t matter.
I mentioned an example of this in the context of invisible illnesses in a previous post. Many people don’t think twice before they jokingly ask someone if they are having an OCD moment, a bipolar moment, or a klutzy moment. Think about all the conversations you may have heard, in life, in videos and movies, or, online, in which people have said, “go kill yourself”, or, “oh my gosh! I just died!” Most people don’t think anything of these statements. But, for those suffering from mental wellbeing challenges or from those mental health conditions that are joked about, these words could feasibly be detrimental to their mental and physical health conditions. They certainly make it less likely for people with those conditions to feel like they belong, safely and inclusively. We don’t think about that when we utter them in jest.
This is why intentionally inclusive language and communications training is a crucial component of the LEGupward framework. This training addresses several key parts of communication that we normally don’t think about – like gender neutrality, intentionally inclusive race and ethnicity parameters, mental health and invisible disability triggers and more. The only viable path we have to inclusion and belongingness is by unlearning our current language idiosyncrasies, and then relearning communications that empower us to create safe spaces. While it may seem difficult at first, we need to practice this aspect of intentional inclusion until it becomes our automatic response, instead of just being an afterthought.
Intentional Inclusion in conversations or chats may seem overly sensitive to those who have normalized insensitivity in their lives.
Once again, we don’t think about this because it falls outside the scope of our usual conditioning as human beings. Instead, when we are called out on any negative impact of our words, we tend to respond with some type of a non-apology that states that we didn’t intend to cause harm. We may even defend our words and ourselves by claiming that people have gotten way too sensitive lately. Instead of leaning into the level of sensitivity needed to include the other person, we double down on the apparent appropriateness of our insensitivity. But, when we take even a few moments to think about it, we wouldn’t be bending over backwards by being more intentionally inclusive. It wouldn’t take any special extra effort on our part other than being mindful, and practicing this mindfulness conscientiously.
Tailoring our words to be intentionally inclusive will take a little bit of learning for all of us. This learning would then result in the belongingness of all the marginalized people who do get included because of our efforts. Our intentions may not be toward exclusion, but until we stop thinking about our intent and start thinking about the real impact that our words and language have on others, we cannot move towards intentional inclusion.
The LEGupward Framework of Inclusion addresses this issue by placing individuals at the centers of their own spheres of influence, and holding them accountable for their own inclusion and that of others, within these spheres. Coupled with the bias exploration and language and communications training, this framework becomes an incredibly powerful tool in increasing transparency, accountability and intentional inclusion throughout groups and communities.
These are just three reasons that I unpacked where being intentional and mindful with our language is critical to moving towards intentional inclusion. I included how the LEGupward framework aims to promote public understanding and training on these points, only to highlight the fact that there are simple yet profoundly impactful things we can all do to be more intentionally inclusive. There are countless more reasons and simple practices that we can all engage in to include our whole selves and those of others in all spaces and aspects of life. The real question is, how willing are we to invest the time and energy in our development and change to empower ourselves and others to thrive and belong. And that is a completely different blog post for a different day!