‘American’ is an Offensive Term, Explains US College’s new Style guide


It’s a situation we’ve all found ourselves in at some time or another: it’s a dark night in a strange part of town; you’re lost and slightly afraid, when suddenly – the horror – you find yourself surrounded by a menacing gang of crop-haired lesbians. Or people with Long-John-Silver-style peg legs and hooks where their hands should be. Or people with like, really old wrinkly skin and gray hair. Or people who aren’t necessarily white or cis-gendered. Or Americans.

And the question you ask yourself in every case is, of course, this: “What’s the best way of addressing these people without giving offence?”

Or maybe: “How do I avoid unwittingly provoking them through my unconscious microaggressions?”

Well, that’s why we should all be so grateful to a group of civic-minded students from the Inclusive Excellence department (“I will now demonstrate on Mister Slave what we mean by inclusive excellence, M’Kaay children?”) at the University of New Hampshire.  They have just produced a “Bias-Free Language Guide” designed to help us negotiate the minefield of acceptable modern speech.

Here are some of their dos and don’ts.

Lesbians. It is perfectly acceptable to use the “l” word in their presence – but ONLY if they are out lesbians. Do not under any circumstances make patronising and potentially offensive assumptions,not even if they are wearing dungarees, unshaven armpit hair and tattoos saying “I HEART Ellen DeGeneres.”

As the guide sternly warns “It can never be assumed someone is out to everyone. To reveal an individual’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, “to out someone”, is a violation of an individual’s right to self-identify.”

Cripples; spazzes; gimps; “special” people; invalids; retards; crazies; wackos; psychos; dwarves; midgets. Do not use any of these terms. Prefer, “person who is physically disabled/learning disabled/with a psychiatric disability/of short stature.”

Also, be careful to avoid “micro-assaults” like:

(To a person who is physically disabled) “Why do you need a wheelchair? I saw you walk…You can walk, right?”

And “micro-aggressions” like:

To a person with a learning disability: “You have a learning disability? How can you be a lawyer?”

But we all knew that already, right? When, say, we find ourselves in the dock for a murder we didn’t commit or we’re trying to get custody of our kids in an ugly divorce or we’re being sued for our life savings, of course, we’ll always be just as happy to be represented by someone with a mental age of 12 who is prepared to try really hard as we would be by a summa cum laude Harvard Law graduate.

Old People. This is acceptable, says the guide. It wasn’t for a period. But now it is again. As the guide explains: “Old people has been reclaimed by some older activists who believe the standard wording of old people lacks the stigma of the term ‘advanced age’. Old people also halts the euphemizing of age. Euphemizing automatically positions age as a negative.”

Interesting. What the style guide neglects to explain, unfortunately, is why euphemizing old age is “negative” but euphemizing everything else (eg race, colour, disability, sexuality) isn’t.

American. A term best avoided, according to the guide. “North Americans often use ‘American’ which usually, depending on the context, fails to recognize South America,” it helpfully explains. Prefer: US citizen or Resident of the US. Or – if they are an “illegal” (which is a word you shouldn’t use by the way because it implies they are “an object”)  an “undocumented immigrant or worker”.

Muslim/Islam Strangely enough the style guide has nothing to say on this score. But I think I can help, having absorbed the general tone of the rest of the guide. Prefer: “Adherent of the Religion of Peace.”

Nor, unfortunately, does the guide give any tips as to how to avoid signalling microaggressions should you just have been captured by a particularly enthusiastic member of the Religion of Peace who wants to cut your head off and whom you do not wish to offend.

My suggestion: “Alhamdulillah. I recognise that what you are about to do has nothing to do with Islam but just in case it does may the 72 virgins who await you bring you even more pleasure than the prettiest camel or the ripest melon.”

Not everyone at the University is as enlightened as the authors of this guide, however. Indeed, the University’s (typically cis-gendered, phallocentric, non-disabled, white-privileged) President Mark W Huddleston has chosen to issue a statement explicitly dissociating himself from the guide.

“While individuals on our campus have every right to express themselves, I want to make it absolutely clear that the views expressed in this guide are NOT the policy of the University of New Hampshire. I am troubled by many things in the language guide, especially the suggestion that the use of the term ‘American’ is misplaced or offensive. The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses. It is ironic that what was probably a well-meaning effort to be ‘sensitive’ proves offensive to many people, myself included.”

It’s possible, too, that the guide’s progressive stance on homosexuality may meet with resistance from the University’s oldest (founded either in 1911 or 1914) student organization  on campus: the New Hampshire Outing Club.



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