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Unavoidable Words that Wound

For the last year, my campus has been having in-depth conversations about situations that make members of our community feel excluded or harassed, with the goal of making ours a more healthy and diverse community. Through it all, I’ve been struck by the amount of inadvertent hurt that well-meaning people can inflict on others through inattention, unfamiliarity, ignorance, misguided efforts to help, and even embarrassment.

I remember with shame, for example, that the default search term that I used to get a feel for new databases used to be “frogs.” Almost no database would come back with zero hits on that term, so I’d get to see what fields were available for searching and how the interface worked without trying to come up with a discipline-specific term. And I liked the mental image of cute little green frogs gallivanting through all of these stogy research tools. Unfortunately, I’m also the liaison to the French department. Ever since one French professor pointed out the connection, I’ve started using the current season as my default search term instead.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor example. But as I hear stories of students who have been crushed by similarly inadvertent insults, I wonder how best to approach those times when typing incredibly offensive terms is unavoidable. One prime example is historical newspaper searching. What do you do when you’re searching for newspaper articles in a full-text archive, and in order to find articles about racial or ethnic groups you have to type the names of those groups as they would have been reported at that point in history? There’s no normative indexing in most of these historical newspaper archives to ease the way. And if I, with my relatively benign heritage and general lack of heritage-induced baggage, cringe just a little bit when I search for World War II coverage of “Japs,” I can’t imagine what the experience must be like for many of my students.

It’s one small piece of a much larger issue, I know, but my current mini-goal is to figure out how to stand in front of a class, as I did just last week, and acknowledge that historical newspaper searching is hard for this reason, and explain why it must be so, and do it all in a way that doesn’t inadvertently wound one of the students whose trust I’m hoping to gain.