Politics of Poverty

Inequality thrives on exclusion—that’s why inclusive language matters

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Language guide words matter
Illustration by Sudeep Kumar, https://www.instagram.com/sudeep1.6/

Oxfam launches a new inclusive language guide as a tool to help Oxfam staff and others in the development sector build a survivor-centered, intersectional, anti-racist, and feminist vocabulary.

Just like people, organizations make choices. As Oxfam, we choose to focus our energy and attention on fighting inequality and challenging the systems and conditions by which many people experience marginalization, exclusion, and oppression. We are committed to pursue, with imagination and rigor, a vision where the future is equal.

In this vision, we need words and language that help us understand and make sense of the world we imagine. To make this vision a reality, we must consider the role of language, recognize that it has power to both oppress and liberate. And we must model the behavior we wish to achieve, encouraging the international development sector to come along on this inclusivity journey.

Oxfam’s Inclusive Language Guide, developed by Helen Wishart and countless others over the last two years, is a concrete example of how we can be thoughtful with word choice so that we don’t reinforce the stereotypes that feed inequality. This guide is intended to be thought-provoking and propositional, and make visible the ways in which Oxfam seeks to actualize our commitment to anti-racism—including decoloniality—and feminist principles in practice.

The words we use reflect and shape our understanding of the world. Words are the entry point to comprehend the complex realities of people’s experiences. They also reflect our limitations and how language and words can inadvertently or intentionally hurt people.

Oxfam seeks to center the people we work with in our stories, and not reinforce harmful narratives of white saviorism; and we commit not to take away their agency. For example, this is why we don’t talk about ourselves as a “charity that helps beneficiaries.” Those types of words create and replicate power imbalances.

We believe in power sharing; we are on equal footing with our partners, and the people we work with know their communities best. We seek to partner with them, amplify their work, and connect with others on the same causes. This same level of care and respect must extend to the stories we tell and the reports we create.

Through thoughtful, intentional word choice, we aim to make visible and acknowledge the lived experience of thousands of Oxfam staff, and over 15 million people that Oxfam works with in more than 80 countries around the world. We seek to create space for people to be seen and recognized fully, and to focus the attention on how current power inequalities—and the systems that sustain them—oppress people.

This guide is sure to stir feelings and make people uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable, too. But that’s where the change happens, in the recognition that we can and should do better.

Illustration by Sudeep Kumar, https://www.instagram.com/sudeep1.6/

A learning journey

We are on our own learning journey. As an organization, we are far from perfect.

Oxfam was founded in the UK in 1942 and we recognize that we are a product of the British colonial history, like many other organizations in our sector. We are committed to challenging this colonial and cultural legacy by not replicating harmful narratives and the power dynamics that sustain them.

Our staff wrestles with this daily, which creates space for critical reflection about our role and the way we work, act, and partner. It pushes us to think about the power we hold and the way such power can help others.

The staff at Oxfam choose to use an intersectional feminist approach, which helps us to analyze issues related to gender, race, sexuality, inequality, and disability that put power front and center. This helps us better understand how multiple dimensions of people’s identities shape and determine their lived experiences and the systems of oppression and privilege that allow experiences of inequality and injustice to persist.

We are in solidarity with people who deal with dehumanization and invalidation of their experiences on a daily basis. We want the people we work with to know we see them and value their experiences.

The Inclusive Language Guide is a powerful tool that will help Oxfam staff close the gap between our aspirations and actions to defy inequality and the harmful, divisive, and polarized realities we experience today. This guide asks us to approach people as people and avoid making assumptions.

It is meant to be an invitation, not a prescription, to create the equal world we want to see by thinking critically about the words we choose. We also acknowledge that language is constantly evolving,  so this guide is a snapshot in time; even within 92 pages, we cannot possibly capture all the many nuances of language. And it will continue to be a work in progress.

We are doing this humbly, in full recognition that we ourselves have a long way to go, and we will probably make mistakes as we walk this path. As part of this learning process, we have chosen to share publicly the language guide with other organizations in the sector and to anyone who wants to join us in this journey.

We encourage you to approach this guide with open mind. This material will be challenging; it asks us all to take a step back and examine our feelings and privileges.

This guide is also a product of love, of unwavering commitment to name and label the injustices and inequalities that people experience every day. Words have the capacity to heal and to hurt. We choose to go forward using words that subvert exclusion and reinforce our belief that only when we include everyone, EVERYONE, we can fight inequality and overcome poverty. Won’t you join us?

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