The Power of Language
Language is powerful. It shapes the way we understand groups of people and how we talk about them. It can be used to make us feel like outsiders, or can serve as an empowering force.
In this blog article, we will focus on the power of language and how it has been used to shape our understanding about immigrants. Particularly in recent years, language has been utilized as a divisive tool to polarize the debate surrounding immigration, and to create harmful generalizations about immigrants. Though the past couple of years have seen a great rise in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, many of these efforts have failed to consider the barriers of being an immigrant in the workplace.
Outdated language and the narratives surrounding immigrants have long prevented their full integration into employer spaces. After studying the implications of exclusive language, we will provide tips on how employers can avoid these harmful pitfalls and move towards communications that reflect organizational commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Othering” Through Language
As already mentioned, words can change our perceptions about everything. Language is how we communicate with others about our lived experiences and about the world around us. Depending on the situation, words create certain impressions that can have negative or positive connotations. According to a Stanford University study, “Even the slightest differences in language use can correspond with biased beliefs of the speakers.” In fact, words can go beyond simply creating a negative perception of another person and can create stereotypes about entire groups of people.
The process of developing these narratives about certain groups of people is called “othering,” a concept that dates back to imperialism and essentialist representations of “non-Western” people. Nowadays, othering occurs when we attempt to distinguish a desirable “us” versus an outlandish “them.” Subtle differences in language can be used to differentiate people based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, and class, among other characteristics.
For immigrants, language can be used as a way to distinguish between who we understand to be “American” versus who is considered a “foreigner.” The dangerous influence of “othering” is that it is built into our language, therefore making it harder to uncloud our judgment. As writer Louisa Hadley argues, “Often, this [othering] is done explicitly and intentionally, but just as dangerous are the occasions when it is implicit and done without conscious thought.”
So, what does all of this have to do with immigrants and DEI? Well, unfortunately debates on immigration in recent years have thrived on using polarizing terms and blanket statements to other immigrants. This, in turn, affects the perception of immigrants on a micro level, where they may be subjected to differentiated treatment in the workplace or excluded from employment opportunities simply based on their immigrant status.
The Immigration Debate and Polarizing Terms
Though immigrants are a critical component of the American story, certain groups of immigrants have historically been treated as scapegoats for the country’s problems, particularly during times of economic unrest. Most recently, the primary target for harmful, othering language have been immigrants of color. Many individuals in positions of power, for example, may often utilize anti-immigrant rhetoric, whether explicitly or implicitly, as a way to “other” immigrants while propping up “real Americans.” Whether conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit, negative characterizations and descriptions of immigrants have a trickle down effect that can shape our perceptions and treatment of immigrants.
Over the years, more people and organizations have recognized the harmful effects of inflammatory language towards immigrants and have made efforts to address language biases. In 2014 and again in 2017, NPR released updated guidelines on reporting on immigration in an effort to move away from “othering” language.
Terms like illegal immigrant, alien, and unauthorized immigrant are often used to describe immigrants, each term carrying a different connotation. Many organizations have moved away from using such terminology to describe people in their communications, as it is harmful to generalize a group of people without knowing their complex, individual stories. Furthermore, using such terms labels the people themselves as opposed to describing the issue at hand.
The Intersection of DEI and Immigrants
The past couple of years have seen a re-envisioning of diversity, equity, and inclusion. From universities, to healthcare, to the corporate world, every institution has some form of DEI training. A critical part of this programming is bias training, and addressing how our conscious and unconscious judgements affect our treatment of others. While perceptions around characteristics like gender, race, religion, etc. have often been addressed in these training sessions, immigrants seem to have not been fully integrated into the conversation. Yet, as previously highlighted, there is a major problem with common perceptions about immigrants that ties back to language.
There is a large trickle-down effect with the type of language we use, especially the language surrounding immigrants. Generalizing, dehumanizing language has the ability to create bias and labels against immigrants applying for jobs, as people are likely to make judgements based on an immigrant’s language ability, nationality, or even name. In the workplace, immigrants may even feel alienated if there are few efforts to truly make immigrants feel like they belong in that work space. In all, this is not only harmful to immigrants, but can also cause employers to miss out on immigrant talent that would otherwise truly benefit them.
Advice for Employers
In order to truly welcome immigrant talent into the workforce, it is important to not only integrate immigrants, but also make sure immigrants feel included and heard. It is especially important for employers to not fall into the common pitfalls of using harmful, generalizing language that can alienate immigrants and buy into stereotypes.
Below are a few ways employers can foster a welcoming space for their immigrant workforce and demonstrate a commitment to DEI values.
- Cultural competence is key to bridging the gap between immigrants between employers and immigrants.
Employers should consider the value of implementing or even revamping cultural competence training. In doing so, employees explore their own cultural values while also identifying their biases and learning how to respond to cultural differences. This is helpful not only for non-immigrant employees, but also immigrants who are integrating themselves into a new culture. An added element to cultural competence should also focus on identifying key DEI terminology on immigration, debunking common myths, and creating a shared understanding between employees and employers.
- DEI language guides are important tools for setting the tone and modeling what inclusive language looks like in the workplace.
Employers should also consider designing a DEI language guide that discusses problematic language towards immigrants and provides more inclusive alternatives. This would encourage a culture of accountability among non-immigrant employees and employers to avoid euphemisms, stereotypes, or generalizations about immigrants. A language guide should emphasize the importance of treating different cultures, languages, and nationalities with respect. A great example is the APA (American Psychological Association) guide, which details inclusive language in writing based on identity as well as how to avoid microaggressions in writing.
- Consistently revisiting DEI guidelines and training is an important part of actually committing to organizational values.
Our understandings of diversity, equity, and inclusion are constantly developing with time. As with any learning experience, it is important to always question the established norms and not take them for granted. Revisiting and revising DEI guidelines is an important step in making sure we address the biases that we may previously have been unaware about. Our work is not done by simply implementing training. In order for DEI training to truly be effective, it is important to reflect and revisit standards as a way to move towards true inclusivity.
Overall, it is important to be mindful of the language we use when talking about/to immigrants and to avoid the common pitfalls of stereotyping. For many years, immigrants have been easy targets for harmful generalization. Now, in the wake of so much work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important to acknowledge immigrant experiences and how we can build cultural competence and thoughtful, inclusive language. Employers play a significant role in this process as they have the ability to implement training, create resources, and provide guidance on how to foster a welcoming environment for immigrants.