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Language police use excessive force

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003


As an African-American male, as a writer and a teacher, I am keenly aware of hurtful language: words, names, phrases and descriptions that stereotype and dehumanize.

I see no good reason to subject anyone, especially schoolchildren, to language that is intentionally injurious. Public school educators and parents have struggled over the years to protect children from the negative effects of hurtful language. But, of late, the effort to protect children has turned into political correctness that may be going too far.

In her book The Language Police, scheduled to be published in April by Knopf and excerpted recently in Atlantic Monthly, Diane Ravitch argues that the so-called "culture wars" -- the movement to include all elements of society, including the traditionally disenfranchised, in our history, art and literature -- has a "tendency to downgrade intellectual content."

For the purposes of this column, I will not discuss Ravitch's thesis. I offer a sampling of the banned words and stereotypes that Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, compiled for her book. She culled the words and expressions from bias guidelines issued by major publishers of education material and by state agencies. The guidelines are used by writers, editors and illustrators when preparing textbooks and examinations for K-12 students.

Some of the entries are sensible, but others challenge common sense.

Words and expressions to avoid:

Adam and Eve (replace with "Eve and Adam," to demonstrate that males do not take priority over females)

Bookworm (banned as offensive; replace with "intellectual")

Busybody (banned as sexist, demeaning to older women)

Courageous (banned as patronizing when referring to a person with disabilities)

Egghead (banned as offensive; replace with "intellectual")

Huts (banned as ethnocentric; replace with "small houses")

Junk bonds (banned as elitist)

Old wives' tale (banned as sexist; replace with "folk wisdom")

One-man band (banned as sexist; replace with "one-person performance")

Snowman (banned; replace with "snow person")

Yacht (banned as elitist)

Girls and women/boys and men: images to avoid:

Women portrayed as teachers, mothers, nurses, and/or secretaries

Women as more nurturing than men

Men as problem solvers

Men playing sports, working with tools

Men and boys larger and heavier than women and girls

Women as passengers on a sailboat or sipping hot chocolate in a ski lodge

Boys as intelligent, logical, mechanical

People of color: images to avoid:

People of color being angry

People of color as politically liberal

African-American people: images to avoid

African-Americans who have white features or all look alike

African-Americans who are baggage handlers

African-Americans in crowded tenements on chaotic streets

Native American people: images to avoid

Native Americans performing a rain dance

Native Americans in rural settings on reservations

Native Americans portrayed as people who live in harmony with nature

Asian-American people: images to avoid

Asian-Americans as very intelligent, excellent scholars

Asian-Americans as having strong family ties

Korean-Americans owning or working in fruit markets

Hispanic-American people: images to avoid:

Hispanics as migrant workers

Hispanics who are warm, expressive and emotional

Mexicans grinding corn

Persons who are older: images to avoid:

Older people in nursing homes or with canes, walkers, wheelchairs, orthopedic shoes or eyeglasses

Older people as funny, absentminded, fussy or charming

Older people who are fishing, baking, knitting, whittling, reminiscing, rocking in chairs or watching TV Like Ravitch, I wonder if much of our education material for public schoolchildren has not erred on the side of extreme political correctness. For the life of me, I am still trying to understand, for example, why we need to get rid of the term "soul food." Well, the language police have banned soul food for its regional and ethnic bias.

What, pray tell, are we supposed to call chitlins, collard greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and lemonade? Soul Food. That's what.

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