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© 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.