Offbeat Empire readers make me a better writer

April 3 2013 | arielmstallings

thanks brideTwo years ago, I got an email in response to a post I wrote on Offbeat Home, I got over my liberal guilt and got a housekeeper, I got this complaint from a reader:

I just wanted to comment more in a private setting rather than make a comment on a post: A post was made about hiring people to help clean and I just wanted to say that I found the use of the phrase "illegal immigrant" to refer to a person as being in poor taste. There is currently a campaign to eliminate the use of the word in that context, there is more info about it over at colorlines.com, I just wanted to say something because I know what it's like to use a website and had someone use divisive language and wasn't able to talk to anyone about it or perhaps did and the moderator was not sensitive to the issue. I wanted to bring it up because I love these sites and I see this as a space space for me when most spaces are not. Thanks!

I did a little research, and found that three months prior, in fall of 2010, a small journalism advisory board had made the recommendation that journalists stop using the term "illegal immigrant," in favor of the phrase "undocumented immigrant." That made sense to me. I mean, it was pretty remarkable that a reader was holding me to journalistic standards that had only been on the table for a couple months, but whatever: the shift in language made sense to me and it was an easy edit to make. I made the edit, and emailed the reader back thanking her for flagging the issue for me.

So that was all in March of 2011. Yesterday, here in April 2013, the AP released this news:

The AP Stylebook no longer sanctions the term "illegal immigrant" or the use of "illegal" to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that "illegal" should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

Interestingly, they reject the term "undocumented immigrant" as well. Read more. Clearly, it's a complex issue.

Look, we all know I have my issues with call-out culture, but this particular situation was not a public call-out or performance art exercise in public shaming. The reader contacted me directly, explained her perspective respectfully and convincingly. As a result, I was educated on an issue I knew nothing about. It's super gratifying to see that AP release this statement, and it makes me appreciate my readers all-the-more… thanks to you guys, the Offbeat Empire was officially two years ahead of the curve on this particular editorial issue. We might be some tiny little bootstrapped blogging start-up, but thanks to our readers taking the time to share their thoughts with us, we've had some awesome opportunities to learn some cool shit.

  1. I actually wrote my dissertation on irregular migration and argued against the use of the term "illegal immigrant" back in 2004, so as you can imagine I gave myself a big high five when I saw the news yesterday. I mean, I *suppose* there's a chance that the AP's decision wasn't entirely based on some lame essay written by a Scottish undergraduate nearly ten years ago, but I'm almost certain this is all down to me. You're welcome.

    (In all seriousness, your readers are indeed awesome, and I love that you take every opportunity to learn from them.)

  2. While I get and support why they want to change it, I'm confused about what AP is actually recommending, since they never actually say in that article what the "correct" form is. "People living in a country illegally" is implied, I guess, by "diagnosed with schizophrenia"? JUST TELL ME CLEARLY SO I CAN DO IT RIGHT, AP. Gee whiz.

    I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of the person-comes-first-then-extra-words-to-avoid-using-adjectives format – it reminds me of things written clunkily in passive voice- but if certain groups are really bothered by it, I don't mind changing my habits in those cases. I think that writing would get pretty ridiculous if we started having to avoid all labels in that way, though. ("The girl who had brown hair passed by the woman of advanced age to greet her friend who was tall, and they headed to the rally for the rights of people who are gay.") If the argument is that we are always people first and not defined by our traits I could see it applying elsewhere. Buuut I doubt it will since I don't see most people caring one way or another 😉

    (Maybe we should adopt the romance language method and start putting adjectives after the nouns they modify. Kinda makes more sense that way anyway, you don't have to skip to the end to see what's being described.)

    • Yeah, the AP's guidance is complex:

      Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

      And I am SO with you on loving labels. I wrote about it here: http://offbeatbride.com/2010/01/labels-and-self-identifying

      The words people use to describe themselves… that is my candy. That is my chocolate. That is my sociological crack cocaine. It's what keeps me coming back, again and again.

    • I think the reason you might not be a huge fan of this type of language is that it makes things clunky for you but you see no benefit for yourself in it. What I mean is, you aren't being hurt currently by the usage of things like "disabled person" or "illegals." But lots of OTHER people are because this kind of language reduces a person down to being a non-person. Calling someone an "illegal" means that's the most important thing about them that we can't even be arsed to include their actual personhood, same for other hurtful language. It's dehumanizing.

      It's not the same for things like brown hair or tallness. No comparison. There is no institutional oppression of people related to those traits. There very much is for certain traits and by listening to the people it affects, we can do better.

      Hate, oppression, and hurt can be helped just a bit by using nicer, more people-centered language….and if we are one of those privileged to not have these problems, then it should be pretty much no big deal to just rearrange how we speak and write. Especially when those affected have been asking us to do so for a long time.

      • Just want to say that People First Language can irk even those who potentially may benefit from it. Here's a great post on the subject: http://www.schuylersmonsterblog.com/2008/08/pet-monsters-are-lot-of-responsibility.html

        tl;dr quote:

        Ultimately, People First Language feels to me like it exists not so much to help broken children like [my daughter], most of whom I suspect are tougher and more pragmatic than the people who love them perhaps realize. I think it works mostly for the people around them, those of us who aren't afflicted and yet lead lives forever changed by disability.

        I present this not because I agree (I like People First Language), but just as a way to say that it's not always an issue of "this doesn't benefit me, so I don't like it."

    • I agree that the language in the AP article is super vague, which is irritating. It also follows a different line of reasoning than I generally hear in regard to this issue, namely: to call a person illegal 1) suggests their existence, not their residence in a specific place , is illegal- which is dehumanizing 2) "illegal immigration " is often simply inaccurate, as many people seen as immigrating illegally actually enter the country legally but then lose their official status for one reason or another.

  3. Man, I still don't see why we had to stop calling immigrants "aliens". I carry my 1980s-era green card on me for fun because having my 5-year-old photo under that giant title is so awesome in so many ways: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8390/8616066129_78451db7a9_o.jpg I was a legal alien, even! But still an alien, clearly having arrived from the great unknown outer space. Oh, language and your connotations.

    • The level of disappointment I had when I first saw a green card, and learned it wasn't green……. so disappoint!

      I vote for green alien cards!

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