Why Language Matters Campaign Raises Awareness at Rutgers

Why Language Matters Campaign Raises Awareness at Rutgers

Cultural centers launch "microaggressions" initiative to call attention to the unintentional ways bias shows up in our language

The new Language Matters campaign includes an online presentation and posters displayed around the university.
Photo: Lisa Marie Segarra

'The main reason we are doing this is discrimination and bias look different today. It is the little things that when they build upon one another still have a similar affect to experiencing flat out bias. Even if it is not intentional, we all have a role to play.'
 
– Zaneta Rago

Brianna Shaw is tired of the comments some people make when they talk to her: You’re pretty for a black girl. You’re smart for a black girl. You're nice for a black girl.

“Well, actually, I am just pretty. I am just smart,’’ said Shaw, a Rutgers junior majoring in social work.

“Anything positive about me should not be surprising to you because of the color of my skin,’’ she said. “That is the most frustrating aspect – getting people to see that I am pretty regardless of my race, I am smart regardless of my race, I am studious regardless of my race. I want things to get to the point where people see me as I am before they see my color.’’

Student’s frustration with slights that occur in every day conversations has served as the inspiration for a new “Language Matters” campaign at Rutgers that includes an online presentation and posters displayed around the university to call attention to the power of words.

The campaign is being rolled out as part of RU Ally Week. The event, which runs through Oct. 17 and is spearheaded by the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, aims to build a more inclusive community. Language Matters is about making people at Rutgers aware that using phrases like “that’s so ghetto,’’ “that’s retarded” or “that’s so gay’’ may seem harmless, but are actually hurtful.

“The main reason we are doing this is discrimination and bias look different today,’’ said Zaneta Rago, acting director of the Center for Social Justice. “It is the little things that when they build upon one another still have a similar affect to experiencing flat out bias. Even if it is not intentional, we all have a role to play.’’

Rago said the goal is to fight “microaggressions,”which she defined as “the seemingly little unintentional ways that bias shows up in our language and action and ultimately have an impact.’’

The campaign is being coordinated by the four cultural centers at Rutgers – the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, the Asian American Cultural Center, the Center For Latino Arts and Culture and the Paul Robeson Cultural Center – under the Division of Student Affairs. It was inspired by I, Too, Am Harvard – a photo project calling attention to the experience of black students at the Ivy League university – and an inclusive language poster campaign at the University of Maryland. 

The cultural centers are working to combat a widespread problem that occurs in every corner of the university from the classroom to the residence halls, and plan to incorporate the message of Language Matters campaign into programs and events throughout the year.

“It is a way for students to think about what language means and how day to day interactions can have an effect on other people,’’ said Merz Lim, assistant director of the Asian American Cultural Center.

Lim said comments that have been directed at him – that he speaks perfect English or that he should be good at math – invalidate his own personal experience.

“Microagressions impact a person’s sense of identity,’’ said Asian American Cultural Center’s director, Ji Hyun Lee. “Anxiety and depression can develop as a result of these types of slights. It affects a person’s self-esteem, how they view themselves.’’

Xochilt Lamas, a second-year graduate student who identifies as a non-binary transgender person (meaning, they identify their gender outside of woman and man categories) hopes the campaign would make people think before they say ‘how can you identify that way’ or ‘that identity doesn’t exist.’

“It is hurtful,” Lamas said. “It is like I am not being seen or being taken seriously.’’

“I really hope that folks who look at this campaign really do some soul searching on what microaggressions they might be committing. I hope it helps people understand the impact of language and their responsibility to work on the language they use,’’ Lamas said.

Brianna Shaw hopes that the Language Matters campaign will help make a difference in the words people choose.
Photo: Lisa Marie Segarra
For Shaw, if people’s comments did not include a mention of the color of her skin it would change the way she feels on campus.

“It would be an extreme relief that I could be myself at all times and that I don’t have to constantly be worrying about who is looking at me and what statement I am making for my entire race,’’ she said.

Rago said the cultural centers are working to expand the campaign beyond the student body to reach faculty and staff.

“We are trying to highlight the fact that you don’t have to be intentionally discriminatory to hurt your peers,’’ Rago said. “We all need to be constantly thinking about how we interact and communicate so that we can be a truly inclusive community, not just a diverse one.’’