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Using the wrong language to describe identity does more harm than you think

AP Photo/Andre Penner
Valentina Sampaio becomes first transgender person to model for Victoria’s Secret.
  • Brianna Holt
By Brianna Holt

Special Projects Deputy Editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Last week, Melania Trump tweeted a photo that ignited controversy. In it, she and President Trump smiled next to an infant survivor of the mass shooting in El Paso, one in which the shooter targeted hispanic victims. Some critics thought the Trumps’ wide smiles were inappropriate in the wake of such a tragic event. The photo reminded many of another tweeted photo from 2016, in which a smiling Trump prepares to chow down on a taco salad, accompanied with the caption “I love Hispanics.”

In 2019, the phrase “I love Hispanics” is cringe-worthy (not that it was all that great three years ago). The same goes for one-word terms for other minority groups, like the “blacks,” the “African-Americans,” and “these people.”

That’s because the language we deem acceptable about minority groups has changed dramatically, even over the course of just a few years.

Stephen Russell, a sociology professor at The University of Texas at Austin who focuses on LGBTQ youth, says using appropriate language to refer to marginalized groups comes down to grammar. The person is a noun, and a portion of their experience should be an adjective. That experience or identity shouldn’t define them. “There’s a big risk in having a label represent the entire person because of the history of exclusion, and that’s why we don’t name everyone else in the dominant categories,” Russell tells Quartz. “We need to acknowledge their personhood rather than just their transgenderhood or their race.” Not doing so, Russell says, reduces a whole group of people to a single characteristic—”and that characteristic is an aspect of oppression. The language rhetorically reduces people to one dimension of their experience.”

“The language rhetorically reduces people to one dimension of their experience.”

That kind of “reductive” language is less common to hear now in public forums, but it’s noticeable when it does come up. Over the years, Trump has called black people “the blacks” and Hispanic people “the Hispanics”; when speaking of white people, Trump usually just says “the American people.” In effect, this rhetoric separates people of color from the majority, highlighting that any problems they encounter are unique to them.

Thankfully, this kind of language is less acceptable than ever. In an interview with Vogue last year, Ed Razek, then the CMO of Victoria’s Secret, used the word “transsexual” to describe the kind of model he would never hire, though he later walked back his comments. The term might have been unremarkable to use as recently as eight years ago, but in 2018 it spurred backlash on the internet.

It’s not clear when exactly these terms turned from a-ok to derogatory, but Barack Obama might have something to do with it. The US’ first black president had a speaking style that would “bring together ‘white syntax’ with ‘black style,'” according to the New York Times in 2012. The way people—online, in the media—talked about him changed what was considered acceptable. His push for civil rights for the LGBTQ community and refutation of the rhetoric of racism hastened that shift in language.

The speed with which the linguistic change took over might be because of social media. Calling people out and “clapping back” is normal for millennials and Gen-Zers, with a metabolism that dizzies older generations.

Perhaps, one might think, the likes of Razek and Trump aren’t intending to be reductive—they’re just baby boomers who are not keeping up with the pace of changing identity language. Their comments, however, are still damaging.

It’s no longer acceptable to refer to transgender people as “transgenders” or “transvestites.” Black people are publicly voicing their frustration about how some less sensitive groups refer to them. Hispanic people are tired of reductive statements that only acknowledge how some aspects of their culture can benefit non-Hispanics.

As our society changes, appropriate identity language follows. These linguistic changes are here to stay. Maybe soon we won’t have to explain why referencing a group of black people as “blacks” is problematic because the term will have fallen into obscurity anyway.

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