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Actually, words really can hurt you

COURTESY of UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN This logo is part of the University of Michigan’s new campus-wide initiative, the Inclusive Language Campaign, to encourage the campus community to consider the impact of their word choices on others.

COURTESY of UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
This logo is part of the University of Michigan’s new campus-wide initiative, the Inclusive Language Campaign, to encourage the campus community to consider the impact of their word choices on others.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of Michigan has begun trying to get students to stop using certain words and phrases that some people find offensive – racial, gender, ethnic and religious slurs, and such terms as “illegal alien,” “ghetto,” “gypped” and “that test raped me.”

A spokesperson said the university’s new program isn’t regulatory, but educational.

The Michigan school isn’t the first to embark on such a program. The University of Maryland launched a similar effort in 2012.

While the University of New Mexico doesn’t like offensive language, it has no plans to follow suit.

“We haven’t done anything like that, primarily because freedom-of-speech issues are important for us to honor,” said Jozi De Leon, UNM’s vice president for Equity and Inclusion. UNM would certainly want to address offensive language, but not in terms of banning it, she said.

“I don’t think that would be a direction the University of New Mexico would ever turn toward.”

Instead, UNM prefers to use dialogue to educate and enlighten students, De Leon said.

In February of last year, a white UNM freshman who scrawled the N-word on a chalkboard outside a housing suite shared by a black student was placed on probation. He was also ordered to participate in an educational program.

“Restorative justice, this is a big matter for us,” said Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre at the time, adding that the student needed to learn that his act – regardless of intent – had an impact not only on the black student, but also on others who lived in the suite and the African-American community as a whole.

The offending student was responsible for two violations of the UNM Student Code, Aguirre said. The first involved inappropriate language as a violation of the housing policy, the second a violation of community standards. Neither came with prescribed sanctions, hence the educational component of the punishment.

“We don’t want to be punitive,” Aguirre said. “This is a place for people to learn.”

He also noted a generational difference in the use and acceptance of the N-word and how it is generally bandied about much more casually by younger people, regardless of race.

In 2013, UNM President Bob Frank set up the Civil Campus Council to teach and encourage civility among various groups. Among its efforts, the CCC held a panel discussion titled “What’s Up My N?” after the housing incident.

In Michigan, the university is spending $16,000 on its so-called Inclusive Language Campaign.

“The ILC raises awareness about the power of words, why certain language can be hurtful to others, and how to be more inclusive in how we speak and act as members of the Michigan campus community,” a spokesperson said.

But De Leon, a member of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said that while

De Leon: UNM’s vice president for Equity and Inclusion

De Leon: UNM’s vice president for Equity and Inclusion

the University of Michigan is a leader in many of the positions it takes regarding race, gender and other equity and inclusion issues, she doesn’t believe other universities will follow its lead in this case.

“I still think that a better way to educate people about inclusion and inclusive language is to engage in dialogue to create a better level of understanding among students and others on campus,” she said.

“Having an inclusive language campaign can be a good thing if it is followed up with much deeper engagement and educational dialogue to get at the real issues behind people’s use of offensive language,” she added. “We feel that dialogues that we have had in the past have done an excellent job of creating greater understanding among groups which is central to improved inclusion and respect.”

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