More Than Words: DML campaign strives to encourage inclusive language


Photo by Emma Carray ’20.

Photo by Emma Carray ’20.
Photo by Emma Carray ’20.

Macalester is touted as a college that provides an inclusive environment for all of its students. Yet one often undervalued aspect is the impact that various words can have on others. The More Than Words (MTW) campaign seeks to “raise awareness about the importance of using inclusive language by empowering individuals to take ownership of the words they choose to use and encourage people to examine their use of words that they know are problematic and words they feel may be just fine,” according to the campaign’s mission.

Demetrius Colvin, one of the co-founders of MTW, conceived the idea along with Jacqueline Mac at The University of Maryland while working on a project focused on oppressive language and how interpersonal interaction can act as social change. Colvin and Mac believe that language does not exist in a vacuum, but rather social context adds additional meaning to the word. “Take, for example, when using the word ‘girl’ or ‘girls’ to refer to women,” Colvin said. “Viewed within the context of heteropatriarchy and sexism, the problem with using ‘girls’ to refer to women becomes visible as an implicit suggestion that women are not yet adults and are incapable of making their own decisions.”

Although some words may not seem like a huge deal to you, they have the potential to affect others in an extremely negative manner. Through this, the importance of inclusive language is key. “Our personal intent (or the intent of a piece of art, music or TV show) may not be to disenfranchise or demean anyone, but the surrounding social environment and the power relations, history and politics that undergird them can cause our actions to reinforce a stereotypical and derogatory impact upon marginalized populations,” Colvin said. The use of inclusive language challenges comfortability and asks us to be aware of the difference in our intent and the impact of our words. In calling out oppressive language in either ourselves or others we will continue to create a more inclusive environment at Macalester. Covlin recognizes that this can be challenging, but insists that we must try in order to instigate change.

The MTW campaign hopes to not put blame on those who use oppressive language, but rather shed light on how words, either conscious or unconscious, have meaning and impact. Often times, we blame the person who used oppressive language, but we must be careful to have a constructive conversation rather than one that tears the other person down. “These materials were not created to be an absolute authority on what is permissible and what is oppressive language, but rather as a tool to begin and sustain conversations about what creating inclusive environments through language could look like,” Colvin said. Rather than policing the community in what is okay and not okay, it hopes to reach out to Macalester students and help to develop a society that mitigates oppressive language in our cross-cultured world in a positive manner.

One of the ways the MTW campaign is spreading its message is through posters that are seen around Macalester. One version of the posters shows a speech bubble that states, “That’s so… ghetto.” Colvin explains that these posters are focused on “establishing the concept that a lot of everyday language and colloquialisms have oppressive roots and continue to have negative impacts on people today. Each poster explains the oppressive social context of a phrase and gives alternate words to use that may more accurately convey someone’s meaning.” By making these posters visible in public places, the MTW campaign hopes to highlight common cross-cultural communication issues, non-violent communication methods and the importance and use of reflexive practices and dialogue.

In order to make Macalester more inclusive, it’s important to think before you speak, and the MTW campaign hopes to demonstrate and educate the community on the subject. “This campaign was started to help people to think about how their seemingly meaningless daily interactions, behavioral patterns and language are tied into pervasive sociocultural beliefs, histories and systems,” Colvin said. He understands that starting this conversation can be hard and often leads to hurt feelings or rising tensions, and he reassures students that this is understandable and normal. However, the conversation is one that should take place, just with an open-mind.

The campaign may appear as a static poster, but the intent is to create a dialogue about oppressive language, either between you and some friends, across campus or outside the physical bounds of Macalester. Colvin urges Macalester students to “get involved, start a conversation based on one of the posters. Refer to one of the concepts on a MTW poster during an interpersonal conflict. Have a courageous conversation. That’s how you become a part of the campaign.” However, Colvin once again presses the importance that you are thoughtful and heartfelt about how and why you challenge someone, because we are all susceptible to using oppressive language.