A few years ago, I was scrolling email and drinking my chai latte one morning when my second grader casually asked me while pointing to the television, “Mom, is she a midget?” I nearly choked as I whipped my head around to admonish him, “You can’t say that!” As I began to explain the preferred term “little people,” my frustration boomeranged from him to me as I reminded myself that he wasn’t born knowing which terms are ok and which might be considered offensive. Unfortunately, as much as we might like to pretend that we adults know so much better, the truth is that we can easily find ourselves in communication quicksand with a workplace colleague – or worse yet, not even know we’ve offended someone and burned a bridge with a simple, seemingly innocuous exchange.
As a workplace antiracism advocate and member of a historically marginalized community myself, I know how important it is to use appropriate, non-offensive words and phrases, but as a flawed, well intentioned human being just trying to make it through the day, I also know that I’m not always conscious of how some words are perceived in certain communities or by certain individuals. While I’m never intending to be insensitive, I just may not be thinking from their perspective or understand the baggage associated with certain language. Just like my second grader, sometimes I need someone to give me a heads up that certain terms are just offensive.
Two experts providing guidance on this sensitive but important topic are May Habib, Cofounder and CEO of Writer, an artificial intelligence driven writing assistant for teams and Rachelle Kanigel, Chair of the San Francisco State University Journalism Department. Kanigel is editor of the Diversity Style Guide, “a resource to help journalists and other media professionals cover a complex, multicultural world with accuracy, authority and sensitivity.” The alphabetized listing includes more than 700 terms related to race/ethnicity, disability, immigration, sexuality and gender identity, drugs and alcohol, and geography. Similarly, Habib offers a diversity and inclusion in the workplace glossary designed to help writers and other professionals use more inclusive language in their day to day work.
Based on their resources and additional research, here’s a listing of at least 11 common words or phrases that you may want to avoid.
1. Addict: “Addiction is a disease, but we shouldn’t equate a person’s identity with their disease,” explains Habib. Instead she recommends using the phrase, “Someone with a substance abuse disorder.” Similarly, she advises against using terms like “homeless” and instead opting for “people experiencing homelessness.”
2. Birth defect: “Many people consider such terms offensive when describing a disability as they imply the person is deficient or inferior to others,” explains Kanigel. Instead she recommends naming or describing the condition.
3. Whitelist (Blacklist): “The idea of color coding to mean ‘good’ or ‘bad’ evokes racial ideologies,” explains Habib. Instead she advises using more neutral terms like “permit list.” Other terms to avoid for similar reasons include “blackballed, black market, or whitewash” which may also be considered racially insensitive.
4. Non white: “The primary issue here is that non-white assumes whiteness as the default identity,” explains Habib. Instead, she advises using a term that is more direct and less white-normative, like “people of color.”
5. Grandfather clause: “The term ‘grandfather clause’ originated as a way to defy the 15th amendment and prevent Black Americans from voting,” explains Habib. Instead, she prefers the term “legacy.” The CNN article “Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations” provides additional insight into this term and others.
6. Manhours: Habib warns against the use of this term for two reasons. “First, the term assumes that it is men who are doing the work. Second, it supports the gender binary by setting up a this-or-that classification.” Instead, she recommends using a less exclusionary and more descriptive term like “person hours” or “work hours.”
7. Opposite sex: “This term can be seen as offensive or inaccurate for people who don’t identify as male or female or who see gender as a continuum rather than a binary construct,” explains Kanigel. Instead, she advises using the phrase “different sex.”
8. Sexual preference: “This is a politically charged term implying that sexuality is the result of a conscious choice,” explains Kanigel. Instead, she recommends using the term “sexual orientation.” She also recommends using the phrase “gender transition” or “sex reassignment” in lieu of the antiquated and potentially offensive term “sex change.” GLAAD offers a detailed media reference guide that provides specific guidance on terms to avoid.
9. Exotic: “When describing women of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, it often implies a departure from a white norm,” explains Kanigel. “Swedes, for example, are not described in the United States as exotic.” Instead, she suggests just using a different adjective.
10. Ethnic restaurant: “Like exotic, the word connotes otherness and can be seen as marginalizing and offensive,” explains Kanigel. Instead, she advises using the specific country or culture being referenced or using a term like “international, global or world” when multiple regions are being referenced.
11. Third world: Kanigel explains that this term should be avoided because of its negative connotations. She explains, “These nations and the people there are often cast as being uncivilized or primitive.” Instead, she suggests it be replaced with “developing world.”
While I’m personally not a fan of the term “politically correct” as I feel it’s too often used as a scapegoat by those who simply don’t want to do the work of considering others’ viewpoints and perspectives, the truth is that many will make the claim that our workplaces have become too “politically correct.” To this claim Kanigel insists, “Instead of thinking of this as political correctness, think of it as righting injustices and repairing frayed relationships. Inclusive language is not only more sensitive; it’s more accurate.” Habib also insists that using inclusive language isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good business as well. “Unfortunately, there are too many cases of companies putting out insensitive messaging through advertising, social media, etc. that lead to a public outlash that tarnishes their reputation and at worst results in a boycott.”
While this type of work can admittedly feel a bit overwhelming at times, it’s also important to remember that mistakes are will happen, and they’re not fatal. No one uses the correct term every single time every single day. As important as it is to try to use accurate and inclusive language, it’s just as important to hone your repair skills for those times when your language many not be perfect. Just as we learned when we were kids, Kanigel advises asking when you’re not sure and demonstrating that you’re eager to learn. And certainly, if you do make a mistake, apologize and commit to doing better next time. Remember, it’s about progress, not perfection.
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