Inclusivity Involves Inclusive Language

TW: Ableism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity


Last night I attended Hello Holiday’s event at the Slowdown featuring Texas Senator Wendy Davis, best known for her 13-hour filibuster on women’s reproductive rights. During the speech, the senator used a common theme of walking in different kinds of shoes to explain the path of the women who came before her as well as showing compassion for other women’s struggles with claiming their autonomy and agency.

It wasn’t until Megan and Sarah from Hello Holiday introduced her that I realized one of my favorite episodes of Shonda Rhime’s hit show Scandal is based off of Sen. Davis’ filibuster. When I saw one of the main characters, Mellie Grant, take the stand and filibuster on reproductive rights I cheered and screamed and, yes, cried in support. It was an empowering tribute to a courageous stand and I loved every minute of it. So to hear from the woman who inspired it…let’s just say, I had very high expectations.

Overall, I appreciate the message. Her focus is on creating access to reproductive health for women, that in turn creates better opportunities. Having the ability to control your reproductive health has direct and indirect consequences to create your own agency. The ability, the power and indeed, the privilege to be able to do what you want to do with your life is a heady, amazing opportunity that is affected in large part by your access and ability to be able to make decision about your health.

Sen. Davis introduces her platform by describing her process leading up to her filibuster and the oddity that sticks out, besides the catheter bag she had attached to her leg, was her pink tennis shoes. She goes on to weave this theme of different types of shoes to literally describe the different lifestyles and journeys of her mother and grandmother, and parallels them to how her own footwear evolved over time in her struggle for self-actualization and achievement. But as she describes her grandmother’s story, I began to suspect something. I realized throughout the course of her speech that she was not speaking about inclusion that night–she wasn’t, honestly, even talking about minorities or diversity. Her entire speech (with one short tangent) was targeted to the audience of and in support of the default woman.

Language in American society, like all cultures, is coded.

So when you–a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman–say “women” without qualifiers like “Muslim women” or “Puerto Rican women” or “non-binary femmes,” you are not including me in that mix. Most of the time the exclusion is not a cognitive choice, but that doesn’t change the fact that the default for everything and everyone in our society is defined by the greater social constructions of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. And considering that American society, especially in Nebraska, has white supremacist, heternormative, able-bodied, capitalist and classist constructions, that means that when you say generalities without qualifiers, you are basing your statement on the assumed knowledge behind those constructions.

Meaning, if you are a white woman talking to a room of predominantly (presumably) white, cisgender, binary people, when you say “women” you mean white women–and not only white women, but white cishet women.

So when you are talking about issues that affect women’s reproductive rights, and you don’t explain you’re talking about all women and non-binary people and femmes and non-men and not just white cishet women, then I know that you don’t actually mean all women. You mean women like you. You can care about women like you, but the problem is that, as a white cishet woman, I don’t want you to speak on my behalf or the behalf of other marginalized women because you don’t actually understand or care about what happens to me.

I know that’s a bold statement, but here’s my reasoning.

If you understood that my sexism, my struggle for autonomy, my day-to-day lived experiences combating and debunking misogyny is always racialized, then you would also understand that my struggles are probably different than that of the average white woman.

If you understood how ableism works in our collective psyche, how it exists in healthcare in terms of mental, emotional and physical health then you would understand why casually using the word “retards” even in a context having nothing to do with mental retardation is inflammatory and ableist. You would understand why I don’t believe you understand, or care, about how the lives of social others are different.

“,,,inequality retards not only the advancement of women, but the progress of civilization itself.”

If you understood how systematic, institutionalized racism works then you would understand that your experiences of trying to find work, take care of your child, going to school and living without fear of harm are all closely tied to the color of your skin.

If you understood how long economic interests have been used to manipulate and oppress people of color, then you would understand that you cannot talk about economic opportunity and reproductive freedom without discussing how often marginalized people are completely erased in these conversations.

If you understood that assigned sex at birth is different than gender, and that when you discuss women as the default cishet white woman you are erasing everyone who may or may not identify as a woman or non-man and who desperately need representation of their reproductive rights.

The reason why all of this matters so very much to me, and why I am taking the time to point it out is because you, as a politician and a political figure, have the ability to seriously affect change in not only how we discuss reproductive rights, but how we discuss health in general in public and political discourse. When the title of the event is, “Inclusivity, Impact and the Equality Economy” I was expecting inclusive language. I was expecting the representation of many different facets of the American woman’s experience with reproductive health. I was expecting… well, more.

It’s really interesting that so often people talk about “women and minorities” commonly forgetting that there are women who are identified also as minorities. So where do we fit in that equation? Are we lumped in with women are we lumped in with minorities? Why do people constantly use binary language that forces marginalized women into one of the two spaces? As Sojourner Truth once asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”

So Sen. Davis, to borrow your words, I task you with the same plea you gave last night:

“I ask that you consider [our] shoes. That you place yourself in them. And that you consider the inextricable connection between reproductive freedoms and economic opportunity [and social oppression].”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.