The Limitations of Language on Inclusive Practice by Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg


We all have an idea as to its meaning, pedagogically subscribing to models that abandon hegemonic principles of design, and facilitating workshops that allow participants to see themselves in the tenets of social justice. Cultural consciousness practice promotes critical thought and demands we continually refine our approach as educators. When it comes to ‘buzzwords’ and ‘common vernacular’ in social justice work, I think we can do better.

Through readings, and my own lived experience, I have come to understand that our choice of words can unintentionally limit learning potential and inadvertently create an in-group, out-group dichotomy, with social justice educators and peer-facilitators at the center. If our intention is to foster inclusivity, are we unconsciously ostracizing those for whom social justice principles are outside their realm of understanding?

If you’ve been involved in this movement for some time, or surround yourself with others in the social justice education community, you’re bound to have encountered many of these words and phrases in conversations with colleagues and students. While this is a short list, I’d like to encourage you to think about each of them, their etymology, and identify others I have overlooked. Please keep in mind, for some of these, the limitation is not in the phrase itself, but in the misuse of the term (for example, ‘dialogue’ pertaining to discussion as opposed to a particular structured facilitation environment):

[“taking up space” / “space/safe space” / “triggered” / “learning edges” / “challenge you” / “dialogue about it” / “push back” / “truths” / “invite people” / “name” / “own” / “checking in” / “be present” / “show up” / “folks” / “problematic” / “dig deep”]

These words and phrases are common to the vernacular of the social justice educator.  Interestingly enough, many of them have been redefined from their original meaning to suit the contextual needs of the social justice education community. Their over-usage, misusage, and oftentimes excuse to approach sensitive topics insensitively under their guise, can lead to confusion and distrust; the very opposite of their intended use! Moreover, I am concerned about how these terms, and others, may be exacerbating the distance between social justice educators, our participants, and our community members.

According to Giles and Giles (2013), “Language and communicative features are important devices for creating an ‘us and them’ dynamic” (p. 142), expounded on by Kim (2001) who purports communication within a group habitualizes itself as coded information specific to that group.  Although a somewhat natural occurrence, I am concerned that as social justice educators we have fallen into this common trap. Creating and enhancing this dichotomy has several unintended consequences:

Unapproachability: When others encounter this in-group shared language, they may find members of the in-group to be unapproachable and hard to connect with, although this of course is not a dynamic encouraged by social justice practitioners.  Spoken language plays a huge role in leading us to feel or not feel kinship with others; when people approach us in familiar fashion we are more apt to feel a connection with them (Gallois, 2008: Giles & Ogay, 2006). There is danger if those who are not involved in social justice education find social justice educators to be alienating.

Limited Learning Potential: For reasons relevant to this estrangement as well as sheer jargon confusion, participants who may find themselves feeling a part of the ‘out-group’ risk limited depth in learning. When establishing ‘ground-rules’ with a group, I encourage participants to ‘speak from the heart’, using language familiar to them, offering that in doing so we can create a shared learning environment where we all have something important to contribute. Of course this is but one strategy, but can create room for participants to see their worth in social justice discussions.

In-group Vitality: On many campuses, and environments where social justice is explored, institutional support by means of community-wide recognition and approval promotes this jargon, further muddying it from its intended purpose or scope. Perhaps you have encountered this, interacting with campus departments or units who have adopted the terms of ‘safe space’, ‘push back’, or ‘naming’. Receiving institutional backing creates social capital for these terms and can promote group vitality (Giles & Giles, 2013). Group vitality can take on several dimensions, interpreted by in-group and out-group members’ alike, fostering messages of power, privilege, and legitimacy. Out-group members may interpret communities, and organizational cultures with strong group vitality as unchallengeable or impermeable. Groups who experience shared language and communication norms are also likely to have high subjective group vitality, leading to high group self-esteem, a sense of pride, and potential for increased exclusive practice (Giles, Bourhis & Taylor, 2009). Together, these suggest the very antithesis of inclusivity when not responsibly managed and critically evaluated.

For what it’s worth, I’m not perfect and I don’t pretend to be. I struggle with this daily and have taken great aims at addressing this issue in my practice. It took a colleague of mine to offer this feedback in my approach to facilitation, and I’m glad she did. It is this support and commitment to improving the social justice education experience that sparked my thought on this practice and it is my intention it will offer you the same.

It is my hope that by identifying the challenges of social justice jargon that educators will invest in doing the hard work of self and programmatic assessment. This can take many forms, from self-reflection to raising the topic in peer-educator trainings and on-going advisement. I believe it to be everyone’s responsibility, for the betterment of the field and the opportunity to create a positive and inclusive learning atmosphere for participants. Critical thought, examination, and a commitment to inclusivity. Let these guide us as we continue to challenge the field in new and dynamic ways.

Gallois, C. (2008). Intergroup accommodative processes. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), International encyclopedia of communication (Vol. VI, pp. 2368-2372). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Giles, H., Bourhis, R. Y. & Taylor, D. M. (2009). Towards a theory of language in ethnic group relations. In N. Coupand & A. Jaworski (Eds.), Subjective and ideological processes in sociolinguistics (pp. 97-132). London: Routledge

Giles, H. & Giles, J. (2013). Ingroups and Outgroups. In A. Kurylo (Ed.), Inter/Cultural communication (pp. 141-162). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Giles, H. & Ogay, T. (2006). Communication accommodation theory. In B. Whaley & W. Samter (Eds.), Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 293-310). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kim, Y. Y. (2001). Becoming intercultural: An integrative theory of cross-cultural adaption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg is the Executive Director at InciteChange! Consulting. Prior to her work at InciteChange!, She  received her Masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from the University of Connecticut in 2010, and dual Bachelors degrees in English and Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo in 2005. Heather has served on the Directorate Body for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators since 2008. Her professional expertise centers on service-learning curriculum development, intersections of social justice and learning theory, workshop design and facilitation, cross-cultural communication, and in training students to be social justice peer-educators. Her current research interest centers on the relationship between integrative learning and intercultural maturity models. You can reach her at

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