Check your privilege is easy to say, but are you doing it?
When you’re a queer immigrant woman like me you can get complacent, until you – I – remember that you’re a white, middle class “native speaker” of the language everyone feels they have to communicate in, which gives you power. To put it another way, if history is written by the winners, the “winner” at any meeting is the minute-taker, and believe me, I’ve taken a lot of minutes.
It’s time to think hard about how to use the power you have, including in your writing.
You could look for a style guide. Many groups have their own, like the US Trans Journalists Association. Following the killing of George Floyd, the big US style guides (APA, then Chicago, then AMA) woke up to Black Lives Matter, but the wordsmiths are still wrangling about the rights and wrongs of capitalizing not only Black, but White. Or about how to say People of Colour in Finnish without an English acronym (“poc-ihmiset” won’t make sense to most). The UK equivalents, like the Oxford Style Guide, change much more slowly, but will get there.
You could get some training. Sarah Grey has been offering inclusive editing courses for years but seen a surge of interest. She frames the case for inclusive language impeccably, in terms of ethics, etiquette, and customer service: who could possibly object? Her ACES webinar series, while US-focused, pointed me to some great resources. The one I’ve used most often is the Conscious Style Guide. And I took her advice in writing about her here; if you aren’t sure how to describe someone, ask them.
You could read a book. Because it’s the English I write in, I make a point of looking for British resources like Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. You can see why half a million people want to make it a set text (sign their petition). Reading it, I learned from Reni Eddo-Lodge that there was a bus boycott in Bristol, UK, as well as Montgomery, USA, and from Darren Chetty that the catch-all Black Asian and Minority Ethnic could be replaced by better terms like racially minoritized or – my favourite – global majority.
There’s an awful lot of books to choose from, but if you read one, read this. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragaya Agarwal. What I loved about this book is that it breaks down big biases around gender, race, and sexuality but doesn’t stop there.
Using her expertise as a behavioural and data scientist, Pragaya Agarwal attacks the algorithms and calls their programmers to account. Did you know that when YouTube started letting users upload videos, a tenth of them were upside down? It took them a while to realize that left-handed people were holding their devices the “other” way round. Did you know that in 2017, when iPhone introduced facial recognition, it couldn’t tell Chinese faces apart? In the country with the world’s largest population, everyone could unlock everyone else’s phones. You can see why using this technology in policing could cause problems, and it does.
You might think that ageism, colourism, dialectism, or heightism are less important, but are they? “Paradoxically, people who value their objectivity and fairness are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, mostly because they are not on guard against subtle bias” (Sway, p. 239). Pragaya Agarwal tackles this from all angles.
Take names. When I, a Wilson, married a Vuorinen, we both had highly ethnonormative names for our contexts, but wanted to take our mothers’ maiden names. Our maternal grandfathers gave us Szczepanik-Sotejeff. Try saying that without sneezing. Try spelling that on the phone. So we compromised, and Sotejeff-Wilson it is. None of it is easy for everyone, but bits of it are easy for some. And part of me hopes that the social and health care reform deal in Finland (sote-uudistus) never gets sealed, because it’s a lot easier to say “Sotejeff as in sote reform” in Finnish. It usually raises a smile, at least. It shows the person you’re spelling for that you’re one of them, you know what’s going on, you can speak the language. And it makes it easier for people. They have to do less work.
I don’t have to do this sort of thing much, but too many people do, every day.
So unravel some biases – you could go to Harvard first and test your unconscious biases in an online implicit association test. Your results might surprise you. As Pragaya Agarwal says (Sway, p. 349), “there are biases that we can control once we are aware of the way they influence our decisions.” With that awareness, we’ll all write better.