The words we choose to write and language we decide to use have a profound impact on our sector. As such, Corus has begun work to create a “DEI lexicon” - vocabulary to replace certain terms and phrases typical in our industry with more accurate and inclusive words. Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash.

Language Matters: Our work to create an inclusive Corus DEI lexicon

  • Ed Mutuma
  • Nov 3, 2021
Unlearning colonialist histories

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe until my family moved to the United Kingdom when I was a teenager. During my time in Zimbabwe, I had an opportunity to study the country’s history (or a version of it), and even had an opportunity to read outdated textbooks written during the Rhodesian era (early 1900s-1972). Within those books was a story I would like to share with you which illustrates just how important it is to know the history and consequences of language.

In 1888, Chief Lobengula of a region in Southern Africa was deceived and later coerced into handing over his lands to the British. Chief Lobengula was told to inscribe an X on a document, which was written in English. Accustomed to sharing important information orally and unaccustomed to the English language, the chief was unable to understand the document for himself and had no concept of what a signature was or its implications on such a document.

In short, this story is about how Chief Lobengula had been made to sign the Rudd Concession: a “contract” drafted in London by a group of British capitalists and endorsed by Queen Victoria, which gave land and mining rights to the British South Africa Company. The Rudd Concession would subsequently become the precursor for the colonization of that land and the creation of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

In those history books I read as a child, Chief Lobengula was often depicted as a willing participant in this exchange, and the British capitalists and the armed group they employed, now known as the “Pioneer Column,” were often depicted as wily, resourceful and smarter than those whose land they had stolen. It was not until after Africans were afforded the opportunity to tell their stories that it became apparent that a gross form of abuse had occurred and our understanding of these historical events became more accurate.

A DEI lexicon for international development

The words the British chose to tell the story of the Rudd Concession misrepresented Chief Lobengula, obscured history and misinformed generations for over a hundred years. Now working in international development, I see concerning echoes of similar language and narratives in our sector.

As international development organizations and practitioners working in countries and systems with colonialist histories, we must be aware of how the language our sector uses can continue these colonial narratives, exclude others and ultimately be counter-productive to our work.

The intended purpose of any language we use should be to build a sense of kinship and understanding between people of diverse cultures, not division or power imbalances.

We must show our commitment to justice and equity in our professional and technical communications by working to eliminate language that is exclusive and perpetuates the injustices we are trying to end.

In pursuit of this goal, Corus International’s Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Task Force is including in its many initiatives a “DEI lexicon” - that is, vocabulary to replace certain terms and phrases typical in our industry with more accurate and inclusive words. To start, we are requesting all staff to submit words and phrases in English, French, or Spanish they would like considered. Staff are being asked via an anonymous survey to “nominate” words to remove from our lexicon with an explanation and to offer suggestions on what word or phrase they would like to replace it with. The survey responses will then be put through an iterative debate process among our global staff that will inform the formal lexicon to be adopted by all Corus organizations.

We are only just beginning this work. We will continue to update our blog with our progress to hold ourselves accountable and to be a resource for other development organizations. Just as I needed to unlearn and relearn history in my own experience, the Corus family is entering a season of unlearning and relearning. We invite you to join us.


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