Brandeis University Students Raise Awareness of Problematic Language

John Willard
Published: 07/09/2021

I’m a 60-something white guy who rarely thinks about the good fortune of my particular gene pool. But, the other day, a friend pointed out a newspaper article about Brandeis University, which my son attended. The article focused on efforts by students at Brandeis to raise sensitivity about language that might be interpreted as oppressive by some.

The message from my friend was basically, gee, that’s a really expensive school and don’t they have better things to do with their time than police language.

That’s not the way I would characterize the efforts. Brandeis University was founded as a non-sectarian university by the American Jewish community in 1948, in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, “at a time when Jews and other ethnic and racial minorities, and women, faced discrimination in higher education.” Given the roots of the school, it makes sense that the students would have a particular interest in raising awareness about potentially oppressive language.

I mention that I’m a white guy because, when it comes to oppressive language, I realize that I have lived my life without ever being the target of such language. I don’t take that privilege lightly.

And I think that I should respect the efforts of others to raise my awareness to language that potentially hurts others.

(BTW, I can call myself a guy because that’s what I am. I don’t call women “guys,” because they aren’t men.)

Some have labelled the Brandeis “Oppressive Language List” as the work of the “language police.” That’s, ironically, the very sort of pejorative coinage that the Brandeis students would suggest we examine. A careful reading of their guidelines shows that there is no coercive, authoritarian, “police” element in their list, but a genuine desire to create an open dialogue about how our language choices can affect others. One can certainly disagree with some of the specifics, but I applaud the overall intent to encourage using language in more sensitive and inclusive ways.

Topics: Inclusive LanguageYouth Activism