Skip to main content

Section 6.1 Writing with Respect

Writing with respect is a crucial component of writing with awareness. By demonstrating to your readers that you strive to be aware and respectful of their various identities and experiences, you make your writing more inclusive and inviting—and make it more likely that your audience will engage with your ideas.

To write respectfully about other people, it is helpful to be aware of our own identities and positionalities. We are all informed by our experiences, and it is not always easy to recognize how our cultural lenses affect our worldviews. We are all, to some degree, ethnocentric; we know our own culture (and gender, ability, race, sexuality, class, religion, etc.) best, and we cannot help but view and evaluate other cultures through our own experiences; we may even implicitly consider our own identity to be superior to that of others, and it may take explicit attention to remember that there are other equally valid lifestyles and experiences. In order to write with awareness, then, we should avoid writing ethnocentrically.

Helpful Questions 6.1.1. Writing Respectfully.

  • Am I making broad generalizations, or do I write with complexity and nuance about people who are different than me? Am I considering other perspectives respectfully rather than in a patronizing or paternalistic way?

  • Am I making value judgments about other ways of living? If so, are they appropriate to the specific discipline or course for which I'm writing?

  • Do I use thorough and fair scholarly sources?

  • Are all of my claims supported with evidence?

  • Do my warrants (the logic connecting my evidence to my claims, see Subsection 3.2.1) rely on Western/American definitions or world-views (for example, evidence: a certain group of people still uses hunting and gathering as its primary mode of subsistence; claim: people in this group are uncivilized; warrant: “civilization” is defined by advanced agriculture)?

  • Am I aware of my own cultural biases and mindful about how they might affect my scholarship and language choices?

Historical Baggage.

Words carry baggage made up of the social structures, hierarchies, and power dynamics that they are associated with. These social contexts have long-lasting legacies and so even though a social structure may no longer exist, the words associated with it carry forth the historical memory of that structure and their use can reinforce or assert it. For example, the use of the n-word by White people hearkens back to a time in America when White people enslaved, tortured, raped, and murdered Black people in a systematically supported way. Some Black people today have reclaimed the n-word, and many other marginalized groups have reclaimed other slurs used against them. In these cases, the use of a slur by a member of the group targeted by the slur can be empowering because it is a symbol for surviving an oppressive, violent system and serves as a source or empowerment for continuing to fight oppressors and oppressive systems. On the other hand, its use by a White person is unacceptable because it is a reenactment of those oppressive power systems, which have a legacy that continues to impact people’s lived experiences in the United States.

To complicate things, some once-derogatory words can become neutral, and some once-neutral terms can become derogatory, and this too is important to keep in mind as you write and speak about people and their identities. For example, the term “Quaker” was originally a derogatory label for members of the Religious Society of Friends; however, it has since lost its offensive meaning and is an accepted name. Contrastingly, the word “moron” started out as a clinical term for people with mental disabilities but has since become derogatory. Furthermore, some words carry specific derogatory histories when used together. For example, calling Black women “angry” or women in general “hysterical” connotes racist and sexist stereotypes, respectively.

Because the historical contexts that words reference have ongoing legacies that impact people differently, a word that seems harmless to one person might cause harm to another person. As you write, take care to learn about the historical baggage that the words you use carry, and be receptive to feedback your readers share with you about the impact your word choice has on them.

Othering.

Some words and concepts create and perpetuate a narrative about who and what is normal, and who deviates from this norm, usually based on aspects of identity, such as race, religion or gender. Often this process of “Othering” dehumanizes those marked as different, and engenders and justifies supremacist ideologies such as racism and ethnocentrism. “Othering” has been used to justify many horrific acts of violence, such as settler-colonialism in the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade, and the Holocaust and other genocides.

“Othering” continues to justify violence. For example, calling women of color “exotic” is often dehumanizing and “othering,” reinforcing a cultural narrative in the United States that hypersexualizes women of color and underlies the high rates of sexual violence against (particularly transgender) women of color. Sometimes “othering” paints the “other” in a positive light, but this is still dehumanizing. For example, the “noble savage” trope has encouraged the appropriation of Native American traditions by non-indigenous people in the United States. As you write, take care not to “other” groups you are writing about through your words or narratives.

List 6.1.2. Strategies for Writing with Respect
  • Write with specificity.

    Don't make generalizations about groups of people. No individual represents an entire group, and individuals cannot be wholly defined by the groups they are in.

  • Write with attention and the desire to keep learning.

    Don't intentionally write harmful, bigoted, or ignorant statements about people or groups of people. If you're unsure of whether or not what you're writing is harmful, do some research or ask people who have a greater knowledge of the group in question, preferably someone within that group.

  • Write with equity.

    Don't make marginalization central to your description of marginalized individuals or groups, unless marginalization is the topic at hand. For instance, a woman of color can be a scientist—just as someone with a less culturally marked identity can be. When you write about a woman of color who is a scientist, unless the focus of your writing is how her identity has impacted her professional life, concentrate on the science she does, and simply describe her as a scientist.

  • Use your best judgment about using people-first language.

    People-first language can be an important way to emphasize a person rather than one aspect of their identity. For example, saying “She is an asthmatic” can emphasize her disability while “She is a person who has asthma,” emphasizes that she is a person first—a person who may also be a parent, a teacher, and a person with any number of other significant identities. At the same time, there is no universal preference for people-first language; there are many situations where person-first language might actually be more awkward or inappropriate. For example, many members of the Autistic community are resisting being called “a person with Aspergers” as opposed to Autistic or Aspie, saying this IS a central part of their personhood and that the other theoretically more inclusive language is dismissive of their experience. This is similar to how we would not call a White person “A person with Whiteness.” Because of the continuing historical salience of race in the United States, race is centrally important to identity in this country (see Subsection 6.2.4). When writing, do some research and use your best judgment to determine if you should use people-first language, and whenever possible use the language preferred by the people or community you are writing about.

  • Commit to spending time educating yourself.

    Keep in mind that you bear the responsibility of your learning; do not expect others to teach you if you have not put in the work to teach yourself. As you seek to learn from others, be aware of the workload you may be placing on them. Often people facing the most marginalization are most burdened with educating others about their identities and experiences, so work to educate yourself first before potentially adding to this burden.