Is ‘American’ offensive? Stanford’s harmful language guide says so

, Spencer Irvine, 1 Comment

Stanford University was widely mocked, criticized, and ridiculed after a harmful language guide was leaked to the media. The “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” was circulated among the Information Technology staff this pasty May, but it suggested not using words like “American” to not offend others. Instead, the guide suggested using “U.S. citizen” in place of saying “American.”

Fox News reported that the purpose of the guide is to eventually remove “racist, violent, and biased language” from Stanford’s websites and supporting code through education. The guide has ten “harmful language” sections, which are as follows:

  • Ableist
  • Ageism
  • Colonialism
  • Culturally appropriative
  • Gender-based
  • Imprecise language
  • Institutionalized racism
  • Person-first
  • Violent and additional consideration

The word “American” was listed in the “imprecise language” section, which section also includes the words “abort,” “child prostitute,” and “Karen.” The guide suggested using “cancel” or “end” for abort, replacing “child who has been trafficked” instead of “child prostitute,” and using “demanding or entitle White woman” in place of “Karen.”

Ableist means language referring to people with disabilities, and the ableist section suggested using “accessible parking” in place of “handicap parking.” The guide said it is preferable to use “died by suicide” and not use “committed suicide,” as well as using “unenlightened” in place of “tone deaf” and using “person with a substance abuse disorder” over “addict.”

The word “brave” is discouraged in the culturally appropriate category and also recommended to use a person’s name instead of nicknames like “chief” or “Pocahontas.”

The gender-based section said that “preferred pronouns” should be discontinued and replaced by “pronouns” because the word “preferred” hinted that gender identity is a choice or preference. Other words receiving the guide’s ire were “fireman, “congresswoman,” and “freshman” because these words do not fit for those who are gender fluid (i.e. people who declare they do not have a gender).

The list goes on! The Fox News report went in-detail on other suggestions from the guide:

The institutionalized racism section says to avoid using words like “black hat,” “black mark” and “black sheep” because of “negative connotations to the color black.” It also says to avoid using “grandfathered” and use “legacy status” instead, because of “roots in the ‘grandfather clause’ adopted by Southern states to deny voting rights to Blacks.”

The index also advises against using language with “violent” words included. These terms include “beating a dead horse,” “pull the trigger,” “trigger warning” and “killing two birds with one stone.”

Many of the terms in the index offered longer alternatives for terms that described a person by one characteristic. These terms include replacing “immigrant” with “a person who has immigrated,” “prisoner” with “a person who is/was incarcerated” and “homeless person” with “a person without housing.”

Damage control ensued at the Palo Alto-based university, where Stanford’s Chief Information Officer Steve Gallagher issued a letter trying to rebut the news reporting, but the damage was already done and ridiculed dealt out. Gallagher said that he wanted to “provide clarification” about the harmful language initiative, such as the alleged ban of the word “American.” He also said that the language guide is not policy, but was “intended for discussion” to create an atmosphere of inclusivity.

In other words, Gallagher defended the language guide without acknowledging that it is an attempt by higher education’s word police to monitor words and shame certain words into oblivion.

Here is Gallagher’s letter in full:

Over the last couple of days, there has been much discussion of a website that provides advice for the IT community at Stanford about word choices in Stanford websites and code. This message seeks to provide clarification about some of the issues discussed.

First and importantly, the website does not represent university policy. It also does not represent mandates or requirements. The website was created by, and intended for discussion within, the IT community at Stanford. It provides “suggested alternatives” for various terms, and reasons why those terms could be problematic in certain uses. Its aspiration, and the reason for its development, is to support an inclusive community.

We have particularly heard concerns about the guide’s treatment of the term “American.” We understand and appreciate those concerns. To be very clear, not only is the use of the term “American” not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed. The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term “US citizen” may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation.

This guide for the university’s IT community is undergoing continual review. The spirit behind it, from the beginning, has been to be responsive to feedback and to consider adjustments based on that feedback. We value the input we have been hearing, from a variety of perspectives, and will be reviewing it thoroughly and making adjustments to the guide.