Guest Post: Dr. Brito on Language

In a featured guest post for Diversity Connections, Dr. Edvan P. Brito talks about the importance of identity in relation to diversity and inclusion initiatives, no matter the institution.


A discussion on the role played by identity in today’s society should be at the center of initiatives related to Diversity & Inclusion at any institution. As an important component of social life, our individual and group identities help us make sense of who we are in relation to others (and vice versa) and the world around us. Moving away from essentialism, postmodern and contemporary scholars have embraced the idea that identity is a socially-constructed concept which points to individual and social characteristics that are dynamic, fluid, and changeable. This means that although we often think of identity categories such as socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as stable, people can and sometimes do cross the lines of what is socially accepted or expected as “normal” behavior within the different sub-groups they belong to. Language is one of the main resources people use to break some of the rigid boundaries of identity. In fact, in our social interactions, our identities can be expressed, (re)-affirmed, legitimized, challenged, questioned, and denied. This being said, as we engage in linguistic exchanges with one another orally or through written texts, we must be sensitive to the images we create for ourselves and for other individuals or groups. For the remainder of this text, I will discuss a few things we should keep in mind in order to produce fair descriptions or representations of diverse groups and acknowledge and respect their identities.

“A good rule of thumb is to communicate with or about others using language that shows an acknowledgment to the fact that there is diversity not only across individuals and groups but also within them.”

The first point I want to make in relation to identity and representation has to do with the issue of othering, which can be understood as the process of establishing a dichotomy between the self (we) and the Other (them). Central to the area of post-colonial cultural studies, the concept of othering was developed from Edward Saïd’s (1978) work on Orientalism, a critical analysis of how Western scholars have created and propagated romanticized and negative representations of the East (Orient), reducing its cultures to the non-European Other. Given the relational nature of identity, as the self (re)affirms perceived or imagined characteristics of the Other, it is also (re)affirming the properties of its own identities. Through repetition and reinforcement, preconceived ideas about the Other are often reactivated or materialized in our everyday discursive practices (e.g. formal and informal conversations, media products, jokes, popular sayings, Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram photos, etc.). When unchallenged, these false ideas about oppressed groups become “truth” which can be used as motive or justification for discrimination. The danger of not taking a critical standpoint about what we say, hear, read, and know about other groups is that we tend to objectify them, depriving them of their own humanity.

Directly connected to the issue of othering is the use of stereotypes. Even though positive and negative stereotypes can be seen as a natural way to organize our thoughts about the world around us, their continuous usage can lead to generalizations and unfair representations of individuals and groups. The problem with stereotypes, or any other kind of generalization for that matter, is that they create a direct connection, a shortcut between a characteristic or behavior and a specific group of people. When repeated over and over again, these associations are naturalized and become part of public discourse, from where they can be easily accessed by both producers and consumers of information. A good rule of thumb is to communicate with or about others using language that shows an acknowledgment to the fact that there is diversity not only across individuals and groups but also within them.

In addition to avoiding generalizations, including stereotypes, it is important to be aware of the assumptions we consciously or unconsciously make when talking with or about other individuals or groups. To illustrate this point, let’s consider the difference between two simple questions:

(1) Are you Martian?

(2) Where are you from?

Even out of context, we can see that the purpose of question 1 is to confirm someone’s nationality or national origin. As such, it shows a degree of expectation that the information to be confirmed is true. Usually this type of question is based on assumptions that point to some stereotypical characteristic or behavior, which is sometimes revealed when the answerer replies with another question like “Why do you ask?”. Not surprisingly, the usual answers to this question (e.g. “You looked Martian.”; “I heard your accent.”; “My best friend is Martian.”) can sometimes confirm that the questioning was indeed based on stereotype and/or generalization.

Question 2, on the other hand, can be seen as more appropriate since it provides the responder with more room to elaborate on the answer on their own terms. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that both questions 1 and 2 can be based on the same kind of assumption. However, question 2 places the questioner on a more neutral stance in relation to his or her assumptions. As a reminder, questions can tell us a lot about the person who answers them but also about the person who asks. The lesson here is to remember that “it is better to be safe than sorry.”

As we can see, language does matter! This includes not only what we say but also how we say it. Changing our linguistic behavior to make it more aligned with the guiding principles of Diversity & Inclusion may take some time, especially because it is also a result of years of unchecked ways of thinking and practices. However, a change is possible, and it can start with becoming more aware of the linguistic choices we make as we interact with one another and taking a moment to think critically about the information that is presented to us on a daily basis. After all, real inclusion requires more than just adding more people with different backgrounds to meet specific percentages of diversity in an institution; rather it requires a strong commitment to understand, respect, and value the different nuances of the identities these people bring with them as contributions to diversity.

Dr. Edvan Brito is an Assistant Professor of Portuguese in the Department of World Languages for Fulbright College. He is working on a research project that aims to replicate his dissertation study in other regions of Brazil by looking at the relationship among racial and place identities and language variation. He has also been studying the effect of telecollaborative technologies on foreign language learning.