One of the central points—truths—to consider when thinking about inclusive language, is our power to name things. It’s one of the things God gives humans right up front.
We can name for good, or for ill. From naming, to classifying, to including/excluding, to judging . . . it’s a slippery slope.
Lots of things about this next story make me cringe. I used to work with a group of friends who had an inside joke about the name “Target.” There was a nice, big, new, shiny (all of those words are important) Target in the rich suburb south of town. That was the Targét (pronounced Tar-jay). Not just Target— Targét. The other Target was in a mall that people thought was dying. Not as nice, big, new, or shiny. That was the Tar-ghetto.
We have the power to name. And I am not proud of how I used that power. How I used that power not just to name, but to judge. Reflecting on that story, one of the most important things, scary things, to me is that it was an inside joke. It was something I shared with some people, and not others. So that shows me personally what exclusive language (as opposed to inclusive) is: “Can I say it to anyone?” Is it appropriate everywhere?
That was a socioeconomic example. Here is a race/ethnicity based example: I have heard very well-meaning people, kind people, friends ask me what I would like to be called, “African-American?” “Black?” I’m sure people who have lived through the decades of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, etc have wondered about African –Americans: “Well, what do they want to be called now?”
There is so much packed into that question. The “they” is a separation, designating an ‘us’ from a ‘them’, whether the question is asked sincerely, faithfully, with concern, with annoyance, or with a sense of insecurity. All of those things are present.
Also present is the idea that the many names for African-Americans, from the slurs (n-word/darkie/ coon) to the ones that are socially acceptable and progressive for their time (black/negro/Afro-American/African-American) have all been reactions. They are all reactions of one person looking at another and thinking, “You, your skin, your culture – you are not like me. What are you?” In other words, African-Americans have never had a way of naming themselves that isn’t a reaction to a normative culture from outside classifying, judging, naming, including/excluding. That slippery slope again.
Those groups that have been named from the outside have often taken those names on internally as a defining characteristic and point of identity. Consider the pink triangle, or the n-word with a gangsta ending. Why would a group do this? Because naming is powerful. Inclusion and exclusion are powerful.
The ability to name is the possession of power, God-given power. As leaders in the church, let’s work to change the balance of power.