College Activists Send Around Problematic Language Document: Don’t Say ‘Man,’ Say ‘Penis-Having Person’

Columbia University in the City of New York, Facebook

Columbia University’s LGBT group, the GS Alliance, recently promoted a document that has become somewhat viral on college campuses entitled “Alternatives and Substitutes for Appropriative or Problematic Language.”

The Google document, which is continuously being edited by those who view it, offers replacement words for everyday terms that are problematic. Categories of problematic language include “AAVE” (African American Vernacular English), which is not supposed to be used by non-African Americans, “Gendered/Transphobic terms” and “Ableist” language, which includes words like “crazy,” “bipolar,” and “tone-deaf.”

The document’s original author, Cal State-Long Beach psychology student Charlene Vo, told Big League Politics that she is surprised that the document has become “so big” among students and activists passing it around.

“My document is not the first to say ‘instead of this, use this phrase’ but I wanted to create a resource that covered everything so that people can refer to it in one convenient place,” Vo said. “I also wanted it to be open to the activist community in general, and have them suggest edits or additions to the resource.”

“I envisioned it as a personal resource,” Vo continued. “I know that not a lot of people would like the idea of this resource, or that it comes off as an attack on their free speech. It’s just there for people who are interested in learning the alternatives and want to change their language to be more inclusive. I’m not trying to force anyone to change the way they speak, but to be mindful of how language like this can “other” people, stigmatize them, and so on.”

Though Vo did not intend the document to be used as an official speech-policing manual for college administrators, the document has taken on a life of its own. It is still unclear how it will be used and put into practice by campus activists with an increasingly authoritarian view on acceptable speech.

Here are a few examples from the document’s “Gendered/Transphobic Terms” category:

“Instead of: Man/woman (when you are really referring to their genitals) Use: Person who possesses a penis/testicular system/penile system, Penis-having/possessing person…Person who possesses a vagina/uterus/uterine system, Uterus-having/possessing person

Instead of: Son/daughter Use: Child, kid, baby, infant, kiddo Examples: “My kiddo just joined band.'”

Here are a few examples from the document’s “Ableist” language category:

“Instead of: “Bipolar (as an insult or descriptor of something, e.g. ‘This weather is so bipolar!’) Use: Finicky, indecisive, mercurial, wishy-washy. Context: Bipolar disorder is not something to make light of; it is often difficult to live with. Examples: “This weather is rather finicky today!” “_ is so indecisive, they can’t seem to make up their mind.”

Instead of:Cr*zy, ps*cho, mental, cray/cray cray” Use: “Absurd, whacky, weird, surprising, ridiculous, outrageous, wild.” Context: Stigmatizes mental illness. Examples: “I can’t believe we’re in the same class again, that’s ridiculous!”

Instead of: Insane Use: Intense, amazing, unbelievable Context: Stigmatizes mental illness Examples: “That work-out was intense!” “The way the soccer player scored was amazing!”

Instead of: OCD (as an insult or descriptor of something, e.g. “I’m so OCD about this”) Use: Picky, particular, perfectionist Context: OCD is not something to make light of; it is often difficult to live with Examples: “I’m so picky about cleaning.” “I’m such a perfectionist.”

Instead of: St*pid, r*t*rded, d*mb, m*r*nic Use: Ridiculous, outrageous, silly Examples: “Their articles were lacking and ridiculous.”

Instead of: Tone-deaf Use: Unaware, insensitive, ignorant Examples: “Pepsi’s advertisements were insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement.'”

The document also has a category for “African American Vernacular English,” which should not be co-opted by millenial white people. For instance, words like “dope, boss and mean” should be replaced by words like “Cool” and “great.” At first glance, this seems like it merely replaces black words with white words. But it’s in the interest of guarding against cultural appropriation.

“In popular media, a lot of black culture gets appropriated, whether it’s through language or performance,” Vo told Big League Politics. “Pop music is a huge example of this, and some TV shows. The biggest example i can think of is the show Broad City, which features two white women who consistently appropriate Black culture, phrases, and mannerisms in their show. the phrase “yas queen” has become popular amongst millienials when I believe it came to be in black LGBTQ communities and spaces.”

But there are some get-out-jail free cards. As the document notes, “if you are of the marginalized group, feel free to reclaim/use such terms. For example, if you are neurodivergent, specifically bipolar, feel free to reclaim “cr*zy”. If you are Black or mixed Black, feel free to use AAVE.”

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