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Workshop explains how common language can be offensive, non-inclusive

Students and faculty might unknowingly use language in the classroom that negatively impacts students from diverse backgrounds.

Dozens of students gathered at 2 p.m. April 13 in the Bovee University Center Terrace Rooms A-D for the “Inclusive Language in the Classroom” workshop. The workshop intended to foster an environment for students to share their experiences with offensive language and educate peers and staff on how they can help improve their communication, said Jade Johnson, event organizer and graduate assistant in the Office of Diversity Education.

“It’s important to talk about these things and provide opportunities for people to discuss the examples they’ve seen of inclusive or non-inclusive language,” the Master’s student said.

At the workshop, Sapphire Cureg, director of the Diversity Education Office, facilitated a discussion about different types of jargon, slang, pronouns, idioms, terms and stereotypes. She also described alternative language that can be used instead of offensive words.

The workshop was interactive, as students were invited to share their personal stories and experiences regarding exclusive language.

“As a result of using inappropriate language, we tend to exclude particular groups and individuals,” Cureg said. “The challenge is to find ways and means to communicate better so that particular individuals and groups won’t feel excluded.”

Many of these phrases are used without people realizing its offensive or exclusive nature. Cureg showed examples to demonstrate the point.

People should replace saying “mankind” with “humanity” to incorporate all genders, Cureg explained. She continued that “handicapped” and “minorities” is also exclusive language, and could be substituted with “differently abled” and “underrepresented groups” instead.

“The use of words in the classroom tends to become the accepted norm,” Cureg said. “When in fact, we begin to realize and recognize that some of those words, phrases or statements could utterly be offensive to certain groups and individuals.”

Inclusive Language in the Classroom also featured participation-heavy activities. One of several of the exercises included an activity called “Identify the Error.” Audience members were given statements and asked to identify why it wasn’t inclusive.

For example, one sentence stated “The secretary must be on her lunch break.” The word “her” was identified as the error because it assumes all secretaries are women.

The workshop also included two skits that were performed by volunteers from the audience. For each skit, the participants acted out a scene showing how non-inclusive language happens in the classroom.

The first skit involved student whose teacher claimed she plagiarized her paper because she was from a “urban area”. The second featured a non-English speaking student working on a group project for class, who is marginalized by the other group members.

Johnson created the skits and played the narrator in both. The scenes were based on concerns from faculty, staff and students and intended to take the audience out of their comfort zone while addressing the issues.

“It’s good to have people included in the conversation — in something that’s fun but also educational,” Johnson said.

Alaskan junior Averie Mesack said she came to the workshop because she isn’t always familiar with inclusive language. She said the skits were especially impactful.

“I didn’t realize that actually happened in classrooms, especially at a college level,” Mesack said. “That was pretty shocking.”

The workshop ended with a game of Bingo, where letters represented different non-inclusive situations. For example, N meant “Looking down on people with government assistance” and O meant “You’re a lesbian but you’re so pretty.”

Mesack said the language workshop allowed students to understand how their language affects other students with different backgrounds at CMU.

"It’s good because if (students) come to an event like this it will prevent them from saying certain things in the future," she said. "Since we are a very diverse campus, it’s very important for them to know."