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Words of Wisdom

Managing the anxiety of composition is an essential part of writing. One must master the process of shepherding the private into public. There are bound to be false starts, excursions that turn out to be dead ends.

— Thomas Beller

Howdy, and welcome to Write Right. Today we are talking about biased language: how to identify it and why it is important to avoid in academic writing.
First of all. What is biased language? Biased language is any language that stereotypes people, is not inclusive and does not attempt to create a sense of community.
Maimon and Pertiz define a stereotype as: “Ideas about people that exclude, demean, ignore, or patronize them on the basis of gender, sexual preference, physical ability, race, religion, or country of origin.”
So why should you avoid biased writing? Because, when you demean, ignore, or patronize people you risk losing the respect of your readers as well as your credibility. Instead you should try to create a sense of community with your writing. When you eliminate bias you avoid offending others, and you demonstrate your ability to think and express yourself in thoughtful and impartial ways. Biased writing can be unintentional, so you should always review your writing to look for bias.
So, how do you avoid bias in your writing? First, don’t make assumptions about people. For instance, don’t assume all black people can dance. This is an example of a biased sentence: although Trisha is black, she doesn’t know how to do the “Cupid Shuffle” or the “moon-walk”. You should state that Trisha can’t dance and leave out the fact that she is black. Another biased example is assuming all vegetarians are animal lovers. A biased sentence would read: even though Ashley is a vegetarian, she loves hunting for sport. Once again, the fact that Ashley is a vegetarian should not be used to make assumptions about her behavior.
An unintentional way bias may slip into your writing is when writing about people with disabilities. People have a habit of emphasizing the disability over the person, for example, by referring to people with disabilities as the disabled. You should always put the person first and not focus on the disability. For instance, you should say this is a person with autism instead of saying they are autistic. You should also avoid calling someone a victim because it makes it sound as though they lost the fight or are hopeless. Instead they should be called a patient when undergoing treatment and a survivor when they are well. Examples are cancer patient and burn survivor. You should also not label the person by their disability so don’t call someone a mute or an alcoholic, rather say they have a speech disorder or are alcohol dependent. The easiest way to avoid offending readers with disabilities is to not focus on their disability but rather focus on the person and emphasize what they can do not their limitations.
Another area where your writing can become biased is in reference to gender. Sexist language can be directed at both genders but is most commonly directed at women. Any language that demeans women, implies they aren’t as capable as men, or makes unneeded references to their role as a wife, mother, or their appearance is sexist. When referring to men and women do so in parallel ways. For example say, men and women, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs., Dr. and Dr., or use their last names. It is in appropriate to say man and wife or say Dr. Johnson and Ms. Baker in the same sentence when Ms. Baker is also a doctor. Finally, replace terms that indicate gender with genderless ones. For instance, say, representative instead of congressman, ancestors instead of forefathers, and humans instead of mankind.
Another way to avoid sexist language is to avoid using masculine pronouns unless you are referring to a person. You can use plural forms to avoid masculine pronouns. For example it is biased to say: every kid who rode his bike to school was late today. But it can be revised to say: kids who rode their bikes to school were late today. Or you can avoid pronouns altogether and say, every kid who biked to school was late today. You can also use his or her or he or she, as long as you don’t use them excessively. For example this sentence reads: if you have a problem with a student, confront him or her about it in the hallway as opposed to in front of the class.
Finally, when writing for your history or social sciences classes you may have to speak about different groups. In this case you should try not to use stereotypes, but rather do your own research and give the facts about that group not your own opinions. Avoid terms like underprivileged or culturally deprived when talking about another group. The American Psychological Association suggests that when you are writing about another group you should substitute your own group in the sentence to see if you are offended by what you have written. If so then you should revise the statement.
So when you write, try to include all people. Your readers will appreciate you, and you will be perceived as a thoughtful and impartial writer. You should always revise your writing for biased language. And if you are not sure something is biased, put yourself in the sentence to see if it offends you or consult a writing handbook for more information.
References used in this podcast include: A Writer’s Resource: A Handbook for Writing and Research and the poster “Your Words, our Image” that had suggestions on what you should and should not say when talking about people with disabilities.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Write Right. We'll see you next time.