WriteTheDocs 2017 – Sticks & Stones... Microaggressions & Inclusive Language at Work

Speaker: Cory Williamson


Workplace diversity is valuable.

This value depends on our openness to it.

Words have power.

What is Diversity?

Diversity requires a group, and is not always visible. Even homogenous looking groups have lots of differences. Diversity is complex – it has many facettes, not only tokenism attributes like "female".

What is Inclusivity

Do not leave your baggage at the door. That reduces the value of diversity. You need an inclusive culture to get along with it.

Value Diversity

Allies are important – even if they do not change the mind of the people they are contradicting, they set a signal to folks who have to rely on allies. This is important. Stand up for others.

Encourage the team to bring their whole life, history, personality to work.

Building Inclusivity

A microaggression is a brief everyday exchange that sends negative messages to members of a underrepresented group in a way that others do not even notice. Unconscious bias is a belief about members of a social and identity group that we develop outside of conscious awareness, and maybe even against our conscious belief.

Responding to callouts is hard because you feel put on the spot.

Good apologies do not include if statements of passive voice. "I'm sorry if that wasn't ok.", "I'm sorry you were offended."

Good apologies acknowledge the error. They may include the intention

"I am sorry.", "Wow, yes, I messed up.", "I'm trying to do better in the future. Please tell me when I make that mistake again."

Deal with lack of understanding

Admit that you do not understand the issue. Then: research. Research people who explain that point, not people who disagree.

Bonus points: Say thank you. Give thanks for feedback, specifically. And use your own voice.

Always try to see their point. Understand that words can hurt regardless of your intentions.

Addressing microaggressions

Calling out microaggressions is hard and awkward. We tend to be quiet instead. It is much easier to do so if you are a member of the dominant culture, but it is much harder to see them in the dominant culture.

If you catch yourself interacting with mostly your own culture, and see mostly your own face looking back at yourself – change your context.

Call-outs happen in public. This signals allyship, but leads to defensive reactions, and embarassment.

Call-ins happen privately or in small groups. This can be much more productive, but does not signal the issue to the group.

You can also try mixing it: delicate call-outs and in-depth call-ins.


Remind yourself that others are just as flawed as you. Unconscious biases are based on the dominant culture. And issues don't stick as much with people who are more part of the dominant culture, people who are more privileged.

Diversity and Inclusion in Docs

These issues are relevant to everyone. Documentarians have already an understanding of empathic language and the importance of phrasing.

Consider accessibility problems:

  • to screenreaders: include alternate texts for images, and readable links, instead of "Learn more"
  • videos to people hard of hearing: no background music, and subtitles

Represent a diverse set of users. Don't show yourself, your buddy, your cat … show underrepresented people.

Wrap Up

This all centers on people being uncomfortable, in very different ways. Try to use concrete words instead. "Uncomfortable" is a cop-out to avoid using "frustrated", "afraid", "ashamed", "insecure".

Inclusive language does not mean restricting language. It means making a point of thinking, empathically, of others who are very much different than we. Be pedantic with a cause.