Words Matter: Creating a Culture of Change to Reframe Bias Language

"Words matter" written with Scrabble blocks

By Shohreh Bozorgmehri, Kim Owe, Sundar Thiru, and John Torello. In information technology, we are familiar with jargon. Non-technical colleagues often point out our “techie” lexicon. The impact of some IT terminology, though, goes beyond misunderstanding. It can perpetuate a toxic environment.

In recent years, technology companies and teams have become aware of commonly used but problematic terminology. Terms such as “blacklist / whitelist” and “slave / master” have been part of the IT lexicon for decades. Such terms, though, also reflect and can perpetuate bias and racist thinking. The time has come for change. To that end, companies such as Microsoft, Android, and Red Hat have embarked upon campaigns to eliminate these terms from their corporate culture.

UC can do this too. This realization was the impetus for a small group of IT professionals from UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego Health, and the UC Office of the President to come together and talk about the language used in information technology. We initially wanted to address the racist terms and references commonly used in technology systems. We soon realized that simply creating a glossary of biased terms and replacement words wouldn’t have long-lasting effects if folks did not understand why certain terms were problematic or how to influence the culture for more sustainable change. Though a glossary of terms is helpful, it’s just one tool in the toolkit.

Words, phrases, analogies, and references that we use every day have been learned over time, many of them ingrained since childhood. Oftentimes, we use them without thinking and, in many cases, have no knowledge of their origin.

We realized that we ourselves, our teams, our colleagues, and our technology partners use non-inclusive language in day-to-day conversations. This is not unique to IT professionals; it is pervasive throughout society as a whole. We agreed that the initial scope of our efforts placed us in a position to lead the way starting within IT and then expanding our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative beyond.

Our goal was to create materials that could be used by IT leaders to both educate themselves and their team members and assist in this change management process. The output, Words Matter: Reframing Bias Language within IT toolkit, is broken into three major categories for success. Please keep in mind that this is just one framework for reframing language in an organization. It is not meant to be prescriptive but to act as a resource for helping organizations with change.

1. Setting the Stage

Start with Community Agreements 

Community agreements (also known as community guidelines) are shared agreements between a group of people about how they want to work together over the course of their time together. They help us establish the “culture” of the group and how to interact and work with one another through conflict. 

Before embarking on any project, it is important to lay some ground rules around communication for folks working together. Community agreements are typically developed by the team and are often presented at the start of any communications to remind folks why they are here and to be open to being held accountable to the agreements that have been made.

Our recommendation for IT leaders (or any group) working on an initiative to reframe language in their organizations is to develop community agreements. These will be used as a guiding force when working with each other, and other groups. Using these community agreements can help prepare for change and will help the team with the crucial conversations that may follow as the initiative moves forward.

Here is an example of a set of community agreements:

  • Be present
    • Be engaged, listen deeply, and actively participate. Try to refrain from checking emails or chats during the meetings.
  • Reflect
    • Take time at the beginning of each meeting to update teammates on recent reflections related to this group’s work.
  • Be open and stay curious
    • Speak honestly and from the heart and don’t be afraid to ask questions if there is something you don’t understand. This includes being willing to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.
  • Call out and call in
    • If you disagree with a statement or an idea, respectfully give feedback. This goes both ways if someone disagrees with you.
  • Create space for multiple truths
    • Recognize that we all have our own lived experiences. This means we might all have different communication styles. Make sure to be patient and understanding with others who don’t have the same communication style as you.

Best Practices

Putting people first upholds the individual as the most essential element of conversation. It requires us to be aware of any implicit bias and to not make any generalizations about people and their race, color, culture, regions, field of study, gender, age, or any other characteristics. As an example, saying “people experiencing homelessness” is preferred among those affected by homelessness over saying “homeless people.” What we say and how we say it, has the power to create a psychologically safe environment that gives those we interact with a sense of belonging.

Additionally, modern day phrases, such as “calm down,” “I know you will be fine,” or similar remarks, are dismissive of fully understanding the person’s situational feelings. We instead could ask, “what can I do to help?” or “I know you may be worried. I am here for you.”

The purpose of rethinking commonly used words when we talk to each other is to develop thoughtful conversations using words that separate a person from certain conditions or situations that they are experiencing. Understanding how words can make individuals feel inadequate or small, best practices can be adopted to remove barriers within interactions at the workplace. 

2. Initiating Change

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” —Lao Tzu

Change Management through ADKAR

To navigate change management comfortably, there are best practices that can be applied to help one throughout the process. Change isn’t easy for most people. Utilizing a change management model helps to ensure success. We decided to adopt Prosci’s ADKAR model, which outlines the goals and outcomes for successful change:

  • Awareness of the need for change. Why is inclusive language important? What is the value of making the change? What are the risks of not making a change?
  • Desire to make a change. Is there a willingness for self-change, and what is the willingness of others to change?
  • Knowledge of how to change. Individuals need the proper knowledge, education, and support to make a successful change. Skills, behaviors, processes, tools, and systems are all part of the overall process.
  • Ability to demonstrate the skills and behaviors. The individual needs to be able to take the knowledge and turn it into tangible action. From here, the desired state begins to take shape. 
  • Reinforcement to make the change stick. To have sustainable change, leaders must acknowledge and reinforce the desired actions and behaviors. Diversity initiatives will not be successful if they are implemented as an item to be “checked off a list” and then set aside.

Glossary of Terms

“Language is very powerful. Language does not describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” —Desmond Tutu

Many people don’t realize the racist origins or connotations of some of the words we commonly use. For example, did you know the term “peanut gallery” referred to the worst, cheapest seats in the theater, often where Black people could sit. The toolkit includes a glossary of biased terms, alternatives to use in their place, and has a description/history of the biased term. The glossary certainly is not comprehensive; it is intended to be a living document to be used as a reference in the journey to eliminating biased language from our collective lexicons.

If we really think about it, the biased terms and phrases we use in conversations really don’t add value to the conversation. While it takes time to erase an old habit, we can start by stopping ourselves and asking why we use these terms or phrases. For example, are we thinking that we are relating to others? Or are we trying to be more casual? We could think more intentionally about whether we are adding any useful perspectives or attempting to add clarity by underscoring a point.

3. Understanding Challenges and Maintaining Momentum

Challenges to the Work: Maintaining Momentum

The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams. —Maya Angelou

As we embark upon DEI initiatives in the workplace, we often start with great momentum. We typically begin the work with like-minded colleagues and have support from leadership. As we begin to expand our scope to our teams and beyond, we may meet some resistance. A natural tendency may be to avoid these difficult conversations in an effort to maintain a comfortable, polite environment. 

However, the inability to talk honestly about race and racial issues can be a major hindrance to the cultivation of effective multicultural workplaces. At the same time, if not done thoughtfully, discussions about race can raise intense and powerful emotions, create a threatening environment for participants, reveal major differences in worldviews or perspectives, and even result in disastrous consequences, such as a hardening of biased racial views. Many people in interracial settings may prefer to avoid such topical discussions or to minimize and dilute their importance and meaning, but it is important to instigate them carefully and with expert support.

One way we can ensure we maintain momentum in our efforts, is to create an environment where we are comfortable correcting each other (“positive correction” as opposed to “calling out”) when these words and phrases are used. It is important to note that this process should not be disruptive to the conversation or presentation, but rather an interjection that occurs at the ideal moment once the appropriate pause in the conversation occurs. When we are able to create a safe space for these positive corrections, we will begin to achieve the inclusive environment we are looking for.

Shohreh Bozogmehri
Shohreh Bozorgmehri is divisional director, Student and Academic Services, Office of Information Technology, UC Irvine
Kim Hwe
Kim Hwe is director, Humanities Computing, Information Technology Services, UC Santa Cruz.
Sundar Thiru
Sundar Thiru is manager, Performance and Automation Testing, UC Office of the President.
John Torello
John Torello is chief technology officer, UC San Diego Health.

Comment (1)

  1. Renea Davis-Leathers

    Thank you! This is good work and I am happy it has begun.


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