January 7, 2022
Words matter, no matter where you go – in business, in the public sector, at school, with friends and family. As communications professionals, we spend a lot of time working to find the right tone, word, verb tense, etc. Precise language is important to what we do. So is understanding the origins and connotations of the words we choose.
That includes awareness of the racial, gender and other biases, inequities and insensitivities that exist in our daily language. The fact is there are many words and phrases in common use today that are rooted in racist, sexist or other disrespectful language.
To be clear, this article is not focused on blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, and other forms of hate speech – that is unequivocally wrong and has no place in civil society. For those words and phrases, awareness is not enough; they should be stopped immediately.
Our goal is to create awareness about the more subtle words and phrases that could be phased out of our communications over time. We are not writing this article to be English teachers or political correctness trackers. Once you know the origins and connotations, however, you may want to think twice about some of the words and phrases you use. As a firm and in our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) Committee, Dix & Eaton is working to do this in our business and help our clients address it in their communications.
Here are some eye-opening examples of words to phase out of your communications:
- “Master bedroom” came from slave owners; you may notice that real estate agents are now using terms such as “main or primary bedroom and bathroom” or “owner’s suite.” The real estate industry’s awareness led to a change and we are all better for it. “Master” anything is probably best replaced by “Lead” or “Main.”
- Similarly, “peanut gallery” and “grandfather clause” are long-used terms that had racist beginnings and continue to be condescending to African-Americans. “Peanut gallery” referred to a section in theaters, usually the cheapest and worst seats, where many Black people sat before the Civil Rights Movement. The “grandfather” terminology came from attempts to keep African Americans from voting by creating strict requirements such as literacy tests, property requirements and poll taxes – which were in place in some areas from after the Civil War all the way up to the 1960s.
- We cringe every time we see an IT protocol that refers to the “blacklist” and “whitelist” of e-mail senders. The technology field also uses “master” and “slave” to describe components of software and hardware in which one process or device controls another. Surely, the IT field and other sectors that use such terminology can come up with something better.
- Ableist phrases such as “tone deaf,” “blind eye,” “lame” and “dumb” should be replaced by “uninformed” or “misguided.”
- And, finally, the practice of “mansplaining” – women know exactly what it is and not enough men know it when they hear it. Look it up here if necessary.
Having honest, safe and often difficult conversations about biases is one of the most important elements of being able to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in an organization. It seems to us that knowing what words mean, where they come from and how they might be interpreted is critical to success in these conversations. Yes, the words we choose really do matter.
Identifying, and remembering to use, alternative words or phrases can be a challenge, but it seems like an important way for communications professionals to contribute to an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion agenda.
Want to read more about this topic? Here are a few articles that we found helpful:
- Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations
- Racist Language and Origins I Didn’t Always Know
- 12 racist and offensive phrases that people still use all the time
- Bias-Free Language