'Latinx,' 'field': Why experts say banning words does more harm than good

Departments at Stanford and USC have removed or considered bans on words like 'field,' while the use of 'Latinx' was recently banned in Arkansas state government.

The word Latinx with a slash through it.
Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images
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The words “Latinx” and “field” are gaining national attention as state leaders and educational institutions either ban the words or implement internal guidelines on how to use them appropriately in an effort to promote inclusion and equity.

It’s the latest battle in the politically charged debate over the use of potentially harmful language. Progressives have singled out such words to challenge racism and encourage diversity, equity and inclusion, while conservatives view “woke” word guidelines — or bans — as a threat to the First Amendment right to free speech.

“The more we restrict and limit speech, the less diverse ideas, perspectives, and discussions will be,” Cherise Trump, executive director at Speech First, said in a statement to Yahoo News.

Most recently, within hours of being sworn in as the first female governor of Arkansas, Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders banned the word “Latinx” from official use in the state government. "Latinx" is a gender-neutral alternative to "Latino"/"Latina" and is considered by progressives to be an LGBTQ-inclusive term.

Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics at Pomona College, says the word "Latinx" is powerful because “it gives you a lot of information about how people are oriented in other ways politically.”

Sanders campaigned on a platform promising anti-LGBTQ actions, and her latest executive move appears to be part of a nationwide effort by GOP lawmakers to introduce anti-LGBTQ legislation, with over 100 bills filed in 22 states so far in 2023.

“The government has a responsibility to respect its citizens and use ethnically appropriate language, particularly when referring to ethnic minorities,” the executive order, issued Jan. 10, said.

The order cites a 2020 Pew Research Center study that found that only 3% of American Latinos and Hispanics use the term “Latinx” to describe themselves. It does not say that the same study reports that 76% of Latino adults have not heard of the term, which has caused division within the community.

A young student in a yellow shirt holds out both her hands, palm up, as if to say: What does this mean?
The debate over appropriate language is not over yet. (Getty Images)

“This is a really complicated issue of intersectional identities,” Tabitha Bonilla, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, told Yahoo News. “Some people use ‘Latine,’ with an ‘e’ on the end instead of an ‘x,’ to accommodate the idea that this is maybe less foreign within the Spanish [or Portuguese] language,” Bonilla explained. “And there are also people within the community who are deeply divided because they don't understand or agree with the idea that someone might be trans or nonbinary.”

Additionally, the University of Southern California School of Social Work announced the removal of the word “field” from its curriculum on the grounds that it can carry racist connotations related to slavery.

In a Jan. 9 letter, the School of Social Work explained that the removal of the word will promote more inclusive language. “Language can be powerful, and phrases such as ‘going into the field’ or ‘field work’ may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign,” the letter stated.

But some experts argue that terms like “field” are not exclusively connected to slavery. “Slaves worked all over the economy, doing all sorts of things. Slaves did not merely work in fields, they worked in houses and kitchens and hotels. Are these words to be removed?” Raff Donelson, associate professor of law at Chicago Kent College of Law, told Yahoo News.

A view down a row of cotton ready to be harvested.
A field of cotton. (Getty Images)

Gail Heriot, a professor at the University of San Diego Law School, agreed. In a tweet following the announcement by the USC department, she stated: “Another perfectly good word is being canceled. USC thinks this has something to do with white supremacy. Please stop.”

Although the department at USC has banned "field," the university's leadership says it will continue to use it. “The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words. We will continue to use words — including 'field' — that accurately encompass and describe our work and research,” Elizabeth Graddy, interim provost at USC, told Yahoo News in a statement.

USC’s School of Social Work is not the only entity removing “field” from its vocabulary. On Jan. 4, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services sent a memo informing its employees that they should no longer use the phrase “field worker,” arguing that it is associated with slavery.

“Instead, staff can use terms like ‘community office,’ ‘local office’ and ‘community/local office staff,’” the agency stated.

Two rows of young people work at tables set up with four monitors each.(Getty Images)
Students working at computers. (Getty Images)

But experts say banning words like “field” is not a step toward inclusivity. “The result in an environment like this is self-censorship and the minimization of debate and open discourse," Trump of Speech First said. “This goes against the very concept of viewpoint diversity. The more we restrict and limit speech, the less diverse ideas, perspectives, and discussions will be."

For instance, in December, Stanford University’s IT community created the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI). The initiative planned to eliminate the use of terms like “master” and “slave” because of their racist connotations.

But a few weeks later, the initiative's website was taken down after it received backlash. “The feedback that this work was broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity means we missed the intended mark. It is for this reason that we have taken down the EHLI site,” Stanford said in a statement on Jan. 4.

While several entities push to ban words or issue guidelines in an attempt to promote inclusion and diversity, some experts say it won't lead to progress, because discussions are needed to work toward a solution.

“When you have very deeply divided people having these conversations, it's a really easy guide to say, 'Let's just not say this word,’” Bonilla said. “On both sides of the political spectrum, issues of race and identity and equity are actually really complicated, and it's hard for people to have discussions, both because it requires learning and deep thought and potentially even changing habits.”