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Mean words spark U.Md. sensitivity campaign

COLLEGE PARK — “That’s so gay. … That’s retarded.”

Phrases like these are the target of the University of Maryland’s Inclusive Language Campaign, launched in the fall to remind students to be aware that their everyday language can be highly offensive.

The campaign hits home for Anthony Douglas, 20, who is bisexual and has a disability.

“I had a great conversation on the bus the other day. A guy used the word retarded. I turned around and jokingly said, ‘Are you talking about me?’” Douglas said. “It made him realize the impact of what he said and he apologized saying he had no idea.”

The need for the campaign became apparent after students complained in residence halls, said Amy Martin, associate director of resident life. “Students were telling us about language that was problematic in the residence halls. … Over the years we’ve had different incidents where students have been made to feel uncomfortable by language that is written on dry-erase boards or that they hear others talking about,” Martin said.

After teaming with the Office of Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy, the group decided on a campaign to promote conversation rather than point fingers, Martin said. The solution group brainstormed a list of phrases with a negative connotation, such as “That exam just raped me,” and “That’s so ghetto,” which can offend groups like sexual assault survivors and those coming from poverty.

The campaign brought brightly colored posters to the Adele H. Stamp Student Union, residence halls, libraries and campus shuttles featuring the phrases and a reminder to think before you speak. Residence hall discussions have been encouraged through the use of YouID, peer conversation groups, in which students can discuss their unique identities, backgrounds and experiences for increased understanding.

“The role of the campaign is to create this space on campus for folks to read something and think about it, process it and make meaning of it. It’s really to pique students’ interest,” said James McShay, associate director of MICA.

“I really think it’s helping students think twice about what they say,” said Easton Hall dormitory president, Joshua Desse, 19.

There is always a need for awareness, he said, because on campus there are students from all life experiences and circumstances. The campaign is giving students the skills and courage to speak up when they hear something offensive, he said.

“From what I’ve heard, students in minority groups feel more accepted and welcome on campus, like somebody is looking out for them,” Desse said.

However, the campaign isn’t designed to be the language police on campus, McShay said.

“The goal or hope is not to call anyone out, per se. The goal is for people to think about their everyday lexicon. They can make decisions for themselves if this is something they continue to use,” McShay said, “but the hope is they think about the origins of some of these terms and what’s oftentimes being connoted.”

“Most of the time when people use those words they don’t mean it in a negative light … but you should always be willing to apologize,” said dorm resident Malik Johnson-Williams, 18.

The primary outcome of the campaign has been a heightened sense of awareness among students, which Douglas said, makes all the difference.

“The more you let those words sink into your language, the more you perpetuate their acceptance in society, which is definitely not what we want,” Douglas said. “It’s great to make people aware that you never know who you’re talking to.”

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