Why we can’t say “pipeline” any longer

July 9, 2023 • 1:15 pm

Here’s a short piece from the Journal of the American Medical Association Open that explains why we can no longer use the word “pipeline” when referring to the progress of human beings from birth until adulthood. The word is often used when discussing ethnic diversity, referring to a pipeline from birth to adulthood and its concomitants: college, jobs, and so on. If the pipeline is meant to include college and one’s achievements there, as well as jobs based on those achievements, the people who leave that career path are said to instantiate a “leaky pipeline.”

Now we are told that we can no longer use the “pipeline” simile, because it’s not inclusive. But on the other hand “American Indian” is a term that’s okay again!

Click to read:

I’m just going to quote from the short piece and make one or two brief remarks.

For many years, the term pipeline has been used metaphorically by researchers and policy makers to refer to the progression of students advancing toward a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree or a career in medicine. Past criticisms of the term pipeline highlight how students, especially those from historically excluded backgrounds, such as American Indian, Black, and Latino/a individuals, “leak” out of the “pipeline” for a variety of personal, social, financial (economic), or cultural reasons. For American Indian and Alaska Native individuals, the term pipeline is especially offensive. More specifically, this term is pejorative for communities where pipeline projects in the US threaten sacred homelands and water supplies. Many people will recall the resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Recently, a new pipeline project impacting racially marginalized residents, including Black and low-income residents, living in the Southwest Crossings neighborhood of Houston, Texas, highlighted the continuing practice of divestment and displacement faced by these communities.

. . . .In place of pipeline, the term pathways has come into favor by many, including the AMA and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Pipeline implies that there is only 1 entry point and 1 exit, and frames career development as a passive process in which individuals are commodified as a resource to be delivered as a final result. Pipeline leaves out the contexts, complexities, and variations of the myriad pathways students may take in education from elementary and secondary school, through higher education, and on to a STEM or health professions field. Pipeline connotes extraction, transport, and removal from community, rather than investment in and nurturing of people and resources in place. Since many historically marginalized or minoritized racial and ethnic groups of students may take nontraditional or divergent career pathways, it remains critically important to use the more inclusive, accurate term of pathways. Use of pathways for this purpose communicates respect for students’ choices, agency, and career exploration.

Note first that the term “American Indian” is used. More on that in a second. What I am wondering here are two things. First, has anybody besides these three privileged authors ever objected to the use of the term “pipeline”—which is reserved for intellectual discussion of academic and social achievement—as insulting to their community? If so—and I do follow these things—I’ve never heard it.  Second, do the authors seriously believe that replacing “pipeline” with “pathway” is going to improve society? How, exactly, will that happen?  Are some “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” individuals who previously refused to discuss career achievement because the discussion involved the p-word, now going to participate eagerly with the new, improved word “pathway.”

I don’t believe it. what we have here is exactly what the authors decry in the next paragraph: “performative allyship”!

Equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts have been challenged by performative allyship and the persistent lack of commitment to equitable access from institutional leadership. Proclaiming representative diversity as the end goal establishes dominant cultural norms of tokenism, deficit framing, and devaluation of historically excluded students and their communities. The messaging must evolve to value diversity as a shared value that benefits individuals, communities, institutions, and ultimately, patients. Using pathways terminology can help move beyond representation to inclusive excellence. Medicine as a profession must decommodify the language around workforce development challenges and focus on the power of diversity and inclusion to enhance and improve medicine, primary health care and health equity.

But the authors’ entire article is an example of useless language policing—”performative allyship” from three privileged academics and physicians.  As for the rest of the paragraph above, it is so badly written that I am not sure what they are trying to say except that they are in favor of more diversity and less oppression.  Oh, and that medicine will improve when we substitute “pathways” for “pipeline”.  If you believe that, well, all I can say is, “Show me the data.”

One more point. For years now, the term “Indian” or “American Indian” has been considered pejorative itself, like saying “Negro” instead of “African American” or “black”.  Now it’s apparently back again:

Allies who do not identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, including influential medical educators, researchers, clinicians, authors, and journal editors in the US, should update their language with preference for the terms American Indian or Alaska Native.

The updating by the Language Police happens so fast that I can’t keep up with it.

22 thoughts on “Why we can’t say “pipeline” any longer

  1. “Indian” is how most Indians (at least out West, where I’m from) refer to themselves. Many will be annoyed if you use any other term. So, no, it’s never been a forbidden term, except among perpetually aggrieved White performative allies.

    1. This is also true in the Midwest. “Native American” is kind of like “LatinX”, mostly unused by the people to whom it refers but imposed by nice people trying to make life better by policing language use.

  2. I ask you, why should any terms descriptive of Indians remain Untouchable, especially the wrong sort of Indians?

    Ramesh 49% Chinese, 49% Indian, 2% of DNA pipeline/corkscrew Denisovan

  3. I’ve read that the rationale for changing “Native American” back to “American Indian” was that it makes it easier for non-indigenous students and adults to recognize and understand their historic oppression, since earlier literature on the topic didn’t refer to “Native Americans.” Apparently the public wasn’t connecting the dots and assumed the Indians were a different people.

    Maybe. I guess it’s hard to underestimate mass ignorance. Still, as you say, I’d like to see that data.

  4. To me the main problem with “Indian” is not that it denigrates Native Americans, but that, even if they prefer it, they’re not *entitled* to it. As far as I can see, the only people who have any business calling themselves Indians these days are the 1.4 billion citizens of India.

  5. Just let me know when our dictionaries have been updated and are stable enough that I can participate again without causing “harms,” whether real or imagined. I’m OK with “pathway” if “pipeline” has too many disturbing implications. Add it to the list of bad words/good words that are floating around out there. Such a waste of time and talent to be examining and purging words.

  6. American Indians has long been the preferred term of American Indians. “Native Americans” was a progressive white academic term that most American Indians never asked for, appreciated, or themselves used.

    1. Yes, similar to Latinx, which I don’t know how to pronounce, so it must be doubly hard for native Spanish speakers who we’re insisting use it to refer to themselves. But I’m happy to hear that I can now reclaim Native American (with caps), given that I was born here.

    2. How about the term Amerindian? I first heard this term in the early 1970s, but it quickly disappeared from usage.

  7. Every time we are told we must not use a word, I insist on remembering to use it as often as possible. Call it my fieldwork.

  8. Pipeline is not necessarily a general or best metaphor for progress through stages of training & professional development. The authors’ alternative pathway is fine for some uses, and there are lots of others (apprenticeship, growth, maturation, etc.). But pipeline is a good metaphor for one specific feature of progress through training: pipelines can leak their contents in a way that’s similar to the loss of particular groups of people from different stages of professional training. What’s the new metaphor to do instead? I guess one could say people “stray from the pathway”? But that’s not quite right because the leaky pipeline is a metaphor for loss of people who want to stay in training but can’t stay (or are forced out), not just for people who choose to leave training.

    More evidence that the woke religion will be the death of metaphor.

  9. Absurd. I think they just sit around, smoke pot, and try to top their last absurdity.
    They claim that pipelines are about extraction and removal, and that this is always a negative thing. As if a water pipeline carrying clean drinking water to an under served indigenous community is not a pipeline as well.
    Beyond all that, a few very noisy radicals do not get to represent the larger populations of Indians.
    The reason the radicals always stick “hereditary chiefs” in front of the cameras is because the actual population and importantly, tribal leadership, holds more conventional opinions about jobs and energy.

    My Indian relatives always say “Indian”. I usually do not, to avoid ambiguity.

    1. At least on my side of the Medicine Line, hereditary chiefs are not actually hereditary as in, say, the British monarchy. For all its faults, in a hereditary system everyone at least acknowledges who the next leader is going to be and he can study up for the job. “Temporarily installed by cronyism until the next cabal of cronies usurps the old cabal” is closer to the truth in indigenous governance. Sovereign settler governments and resource companies are accustomed to negotiating with elected, representative tribal/band councils (for all theirfaults) and are always flummoxed when a guy in a birchbark headdress steps up and claims that only he and his cronies “speak for the land”; the elected councils who signed the contracts and took the participation money do not. So off to Court we go until more cash changes hands. Sometimes a nice new 4×4 V-8 diesel pickup truck will do it. And throw in some quad cycles for the kids to play on. Crony chiefs order the blockade of work camps until the Mounties have to step in so the trapped workers don’t starve and the Porta-Potties don’t overflow into pristine sacred watercourses. Crony chiefs have given the finger to the ruling of the Court, and to the elected councils, and have sent thugs to occupy the land as a law unto themselves. The Canadian government, desperate for Reconciliation, has taken the Dane-geld position that, push comes to shove, the wishes of the crony chiefs will over-ride the democratically elected councils, mostly out of fear of violence, vandalism, and disruption of infrastructure like railways, which it covers up by respecting “traditional governance systems of sovereign nations.”

      In Canada no one knows what the actual indigenous population thinks about any of this. Elected band councils, which as you say, generally support development (when it benefits them but are as like to oppose it when it benefits rivals) nonetheless forbid their residents from speaking out on any issue and don’t let journalists wander around Reserves to talk to people. Since the elected chiefs absolutely control the distribution of federal welfare money—the only legal source of income on most Reserves—and control who gets to work on pipelines and mines, they effectively silence all dissent. A Substack writer I follow says that an indigenous man told him recently that he, the writer, was the first person he, the indigenous person, had ever had an actual discussion with in his whole life.

  10. We can’t say either one. The approved word is neurodiversity!, but that cannot be used as an exclamation, so hold the exclamation mark.

  11. Yes. The passage beginning “Equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts …” could only have been written by someone in a privileged position using language that is only familiar to them and a select few colleagues. It is terrible writing – vague, abstract and full of jargon. Exactly the opposite of what they say they’re fighting for. If we’re to be truly inclusive, a good place to start is to speak and write in the plainest language we can find for our purpose.

  12. Does this mean that the ACLU can no longer use the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline?”

  13. “Allies” simultaneously triggers WWII trauma and is pro-U.S. / white supremacist propaganda.

    “Pipe” metaphors support the hegemony of plumber capitalist oppressors – unless the plumbers are queer. In which case, .. well, let’s move on to :

    “Pathway” imagery is colonialist oppression. The white colonizers show an efficient path through the wilderness that the indigenous already know, leading to their enslavement by oppressive, dehumanizing structures.

    I am trying to write this as a sarcastic parody / Titania McGrath fan fiction, but it isn’t really working. I also liked this quote :

    “Medicine as a profession must decommodify the language …”

    I’ll tell my doctor at my next visit to treat the searing pain in my head by just decommodifying some language for me. That should cure my problem.

  14. There are too many people (often academics) driven to find something new to say. ‘Publish or die’ has consequences.

  15. HA! That’s really funny. Can’t say “pipeline” anymore. I used to have a boyfriend who was a union pipefitter & you can imagine all the jokes about how well his pipe fitted. I guess that wouldn’t be allowed now by these PC language police people who have no sense of humor whatsoever.

  16. I’m all for pipelines. As long as they are the ones that carry oil, gas, and bitumen cheaply and safely to eager consumers, some who say we must be made to do without them but who will change their tune if they are ever shut off.

    I think the problem with the metaphor, “pipeline”, is that it has become hackneyed from over-use in the biz-speak used in academe to make its speakers sound like they are doing something audacious and useful, as real pipelines are. Maybe petroleum engineers should agitate collectively to have “pipeline” declared a protected term, off-limits to cultural appropriation. But they, and the thousands of native people employed and contracting on the last two major pipelines that will ever be built in Canada, are too busy working for a living.

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