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Calling out bias with confidence: 5 tips

Calling out bias with confidence: 5 tips

November 15, 2018 By Allyson Rudolph
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Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you wince a little when you come across phrases like "men of science"... but the scope of your job is limited. It can feel daunting to suggest the unbiased conscious-language fix burning a hole in your brain.

Same. I'm a staff proofreader with limited opportunities for content changes … but I've begun correcting biased language with confidence. My suggestions are usually quietly implemented. I've been told my queries have tipped the scales for editors who wanted a reason beyond their own gut instincts to adjust something they felt uncertain about. I've been thanked, many times. I've never—not once—had anyone tell me my work was inappropriate, unwelcome, or unprofessional.

That said, even with supportive employers, it's wise to call out biased and stigmatizing language with care. If you're well-versed in the whats and whys of conscious language, but need a little encouragement to mark things up, these tips are for you.

Marshal Your Resources

It's no longer radical to expect inclusive, non-stigmatizing language from professional publications. The Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook have sections on inclusive language. Merriam-Webster's will tell you when a word is "offensive," "usually offensive," or "often offensive." Buzzfeed's style guide is thorough and informative, and they're winning Pulitzers—it doesn't get more authoritative than that.

Chances are, your style guide or dictionary of record has a section you can gaze at when you need some strength—or, more practically, bookmark if you expect to be questioned.

Keep it Simple

Just because you can write a dissertation on the sociological implications of biased language doesn't mean you should. Some biased language can be corrected like a typo: I think of “mankind” as just a misspelling of “humankind,” and “firemen” as a quaint but outmoded variant of “firefighters.” The changes are self-explanatory, noncontroversial, and involve very few characters—and are thus unlikely to cause line break problems or reflow, if that's a concern.

For bigger changes, a simple "per AP" or "per Merriam-Webster" is probably enough—whatever you'd use in any other circumstance to reassure a nervous employer that your correction is sound. Good editorial judgment still applies, of course—but a little daring goes a long way.

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Keep your queries simple. Just because you can write a dissertation on the sociological implications of biased language doesn't mean you should.

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Find Your Safe Word

A law firm in Canada recently encouraged their employees to call out workplace behavior that is, in their coinage, #notcool. They promoted #notcool as a safe word inside this workplace—it's easy to say in a hard situation, nonaccusatory, impersonal, and instantly understandable.

#notcool has crept into my own work—I use it when I'm flagging a problem that may not be obvious to folks who aren't paying rapt attention to conscious language best practices. Try coming up with your own word or phrase to lean on when you need to call attention to tough stuff. No hashtag required.

Acknowledge Scope

Calling out biased language is outside the brief of many editorial and proofreading (especially proofreading) roles. That's okay! Acknowledge your limitations and calmly cite your sources: "This falls outside my mandate, but I recommend changing X to Y per [reference work] and [reference work]." If you know your employer also uses designated sensitivity readers, nod in that direction: "I imagine the sensitivity reader will catch this, but just in case..."

Make it Better This might not fly with every employer, but I find my recommendations go over best when I offer a useable alternative. Use good judgment, and be mindful of character counts if you're working on typeset page proofs. Keep storytelling in mind: it's harder to say no to a suggestion that manifestly enhances the writing.

I once came across product copy describing a female character as sooooo crazy but soooo sexy. She's also a ferociously devoted friend, so I suggested a new sentence of similar length based on that trait—a bold rewrite, but one that gave the reader more, meatier information that (bonus!) didn't infantilize, sexualize, or stigmatize. My version made it onto the product, with a “thank you” from the product team.

Above all, remember: you're not changing a mind, you're changing a word. As editors, we courageously change words all the time. By drawing from the skills and techniques you already use to work with confidence, you'll find your bias-busting, stigma-stopping voice in no time.

Allyson Rudolph is a staff proofreader for a major comics publisher in Los Angeles, a dream job she landed after 10 years working various publishing jobs in New York and Washington, DC.

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