Part 2/2: 12 tips to help your writing go beyond being inclusive and become anti-oppressive. Ways to keep learning. Resources to dive deeper with.
Language is part of liberation. When we change our words, we’re helping - word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph - to build a more just world.
In part 1, we looked at:
- the idea of inclusive content
- why inclusion doesn’t go far enough
- why we need anti-oppressive content instead.
In this article, we’ll get into how to create anti-oppressive content. You'll also find some more resources at the end.
12 practical tips for anti-oppressive content
1. Know that language can harm
“Words, like sticks and stones, can assault; they can injure, they can exclude” say the authors of Words That Wound.
That’s true of slurs, threats and insults. But even well-intentioned phrases can harm people.
Saying “ladies and gentlemen”, for example, implies there are only two genders, even though there are many genders. It can erase people who don’t identify as men or women. You could say everyone, everybody, folks, colleagues or friends instead.
“In the wrong hands, speech can be used as a weapon. But in the right ones, it can change the world.” – Amanda Montell
2. Be accurate
When we’re used to a word or phrase, we may not question its literal meaning. For example:
- It’s often correct to call it male violence against women and girls, not violence against women and girls. Men tend to be the perpetrators. Not naming men makes them invisible, suggests that it’s natural, and can suggest it’s a problem for women and girls to solve.
- In many parts of the world, global heating more accurately reflects the scale of change than global warming. (And the phrase ‘climate change’ was initially popularised because it sounded less scary than global warming.)
- People living in poverty are made poor, by systems and policies. (For a detailed discussion, read my article about service users and the ‘them and us’ narrative in the charity sector.)
What words or phrases are popular in your sector? Do they describe people accurately, or do they suggest they might be responsible for situations and systems they didn’t create? Think of some phrases you could rewrite, to name the issue more accurately.
3. Don’t centre dominant groups
Men are often seen as normal or neutral humans. From crash test dummies to office air conditioning, we find ourselves living in a world built for men. We also set Whiteness, heterosexuality, being cisgender, being neurotypical - and many other dominant cultural attributes - as our standard of ‘normal’.
“If someone begins their story with ‘I saw this person the other day’, chances are that hearers of that story will most often understand this unmarked person to be a middle class White man until further specified” says Scott Kiesling.
If we only mention someone’s race or gender when they’re not White, not male, not cisgender (and so on), we’re reinforcing their legitimacy as the invisible standard against which other groups are measured.
To challenge this, avoid dominant group generalisations (like calling a mixed gender group of people ‘guys’).
Try to decentre dominant cultural traits like Whiteness, maleness or heterosexuality. It could be as simple as saying: this person is White, they’re male, they’re heterosexual.
4. Abandon the gender binary
Many of us were taught there are only two genders. Phrases like ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls’ reinforce this gender binary.
But there are many genders, not two. Try saying ‘all genders’ or ‘every gender’ instead of both.
Using gender-neutral titles like ‘chair’ instead of chairman or chairwoman also helps avoid mis-gendering someone.
Get into the habit of saying your pronouns. You can include them when you’re introducing yourself, along with your name. You can put your pronouns in your social media bios, video chat display name and your email signature.
- You can’t guess someone’s name from looking at them
- You could guess their name, but you may be wrong.
- There are many names, not just two
- Forgetting or deliberately mis-using someone’s name can be very harmful
- If you get it wrong, you quickly apologise and then commit to getting their name right next time.
That’s true of pronouns, too.
Get comfortable with:
- Saying your own pronouns
- Asking for someone’s pronouns, (remember, they’re not ‘preferred’ or ‘chosen’, they just are their pronouns)
- Making a brief, sincere apology if you get it wrong.
For more tips, read my blog on how to be more LGBTQIA+ inclusive.
5. Learn how to apologise
We all make mistakes.
When you make a mistake, don’t self-flagellate. It’s more helpful to:
- Recognise you did harm (don’t deny, attack or try to blame the person who was hurt)
- Take ownership (say ‘I’ or ‘we’ if appropriate)
- Say sorry (without any 'ifs or buts')
- Keep it short, clear and sincere
- Say what you’ll do differently next time
- Focus on not making the same mistake again.
6. Commit to constant learning
Language is always changing. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a sign of social progress. We can feel glad when our content goes out of date. It may be a sign that society is becoming less oppressive.
Learn from others
Some of my favourite Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and TikTok creators are people that talk about their experiences of ageism, ableism, racism, classism and more.
But we shouldn’t fetishise people’s identities. They’re great to follow because they talk about a massive range of issues, not only their lived experiences. So follow them because they’re funny, and insightful, and because they wear great outfits. And when you follow them, you’ll also expand your worldview.
- @Dillon_Nadia (also on Instagram as @AutisticBlackGirl)
Learn from style guides
There are some brilliant inclusive content style guides out there. These are a few of my favourites:
Of course, language changes. Processes like pejoration, the euphemistic treadmill and linguistic bleaching all mean that once-progressive terms can move into being slurs. So some of this guidance will go out of date. But that’s okay!
Sign up for language and writing newsletters
Get updates on conscious (or anti-oppressive) language in the news, plus useful resources from the Conscious Language newsletter.
Subscribe to my newsletter for practical tips on specific topics, like how to write accessible hashtags and hyperlinks, or how to talk more accurately about disability.
7. Avoid euphemisms
Phrases like ‘special needs’, ‘challenged’ or ‘differently abled’ are euphemisms. They’re attempts to talk about someone’s disability or difference, without naming it directly.
We tend to use euphemisms about issues that are seen as shameful, harmful or unclean. We sidestep the issue, because it’s not considered polite or respectable. But there’s nothing negative about disability.
Instead use language that’s:
It’s clear, specific and affirmative to say ‘uses a wheelchair’, for example. It’s pejorative to say ‘is confined to a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair-bound.’ It’s not accurate, either. Wheelchairs can liberate people.
8. Understand intersectionality
Intersectionality is the idea that systems of oppression intersect.
A Black trans woman, for example, is harmed by the overlap of racism and sexism (misogynoir) and cissexism and sexism (transmisogyny). As a queer, White, cisgender, middle class woman, I’m free from many of those -isms. So it can be misleading and unhelpful to group us both under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, when our life experiences are radically different.
In some cases, umbrella terms are useful. If we’re genuinely talking about everyone that isn’t cisgender, then we’re not hiding behind a generalisation.
But ask yourself: am I genuinely talking about a whole group, for example, all people of colour? Or am I actually talking about Black people, in which case I should just say Black people?
9. Write for everyone
We can’t separate anti-oppressive language from accessible content.
People are disabled by the barriers society puts up.
Inaccessible content can disable us. For example, audio content, that doesn’t have subtitles or a transcript, disables deaf/Deaf/hard of hearing people from accessing it.
Using simple language, for example, helps almost everyone. It avoids euphemisms, and may help us stop centring dominant groups. It’s also clearer and easier for everyone to remember, whether they’re tired or dyslexic, distracted or dyspraxic.
Read my tips for simple writing to find out what simple writing is, why it matters and how to practise it.
Some accessibility best practices:
- Create alt text for meaningful images
- Use camel case for hashtags
- Write descriptive hyperlinks
- Avoid jargon, idioms or cultural references (unless you explain them clearly in context).
10. Make no assumptions
You can’t tell someone’s race/gender/disability status from looking at them. And you can’t tell their preferences, like whether they use person-first or identity-first language.
For example, most autistic people in the UK prefer identity-first language (“I’m autistic’) not person-first language (“I’m a person with autism”). But everyone’s different. So even if 90% of a group prefers one approach, you should always check.
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” - Dr Stephen Shore.
We can apply this to any identity. If you’ve met one Deaf person, for example, you’ve met one Deaf person.
11. Ask people
“How do you describe yourself?”
“How do you identify?”
“What pronouns do you use?”
Asking someone about their gender, race or sexuality out of context could be rude or discriminatory.
If it’s genuinely relevant, and you’re polite and professional, then questions like these can be more inclusive, not exclusionary. It might be relevant to ask someone if, for example, you need to check how to describe them in a written interview, or what to put in their bio before they speak at an event.
It can feel awkward to ask, but it’s much better than trying to guess their gender/sexuality/race and getting it wrong.
12. Share what you learn
Correcting harmful language can be simple. Politely point out what the person has said, explain why it may be harmful, and then explain what they could say instead.
“I noticed you said [phrase]. I used to say that, but then I learned why it’s harmful. Now I say this instead.”
Correcting pronouns can also be easy.
“Just so you know, Ashley’s pronouns are they/them.”
You can also reply by using the correct name, pronoun or alternative word.
Keep up the momentum
Are you ready to create anti-oppressive content? Start today, and keep sharing your journey, so you can bring other people along too.
Articles, guides and newsletters
- Intuit’s accessibility and inclusion content guide
- Inclusive language in tech
- Charity language swaps
- Communication planning through a D&I lens
- A Progressive’s Style Guide
- Nonprofits have an ‘us and them problem
- Fighting Talk newsletter
- 10 practical tips for LGBTQIA+ inclusive language