Racist stereotyping, despite efforts spanning decades to change it, still exists, and it’s pervasive in how we communicate. Racist stereotyping — well, stereotyping in general — is a poor way to communicate because it relies on assumptions and generalizations that often don’t apply to the situation at hand.
Here are 5 ways to avoid racism in your own writing, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
1. Avoid racial and ethnic stereotypes
Avoid using expressions that make people think that certain attributes are found among one group of people rather than in all groups.
- Scots are cheap.
- Asians are math whizzes.
- Mexicans are lazy.
- French people are snobs.
In every instance, this is generalizing. While it may be true that you can find a cheap Scottish person, you can also find a spendthrift Scottish person or a cheap Bolivian person. While it may be true that an Asian person is a math whiz, there are Asian people who fail horribly at math and there are math whizzes who are Senegalese.
2. Avoid presenting facts as exceptions
Certain modifiers perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes because they present information in a way that suggests a fact is an exception to the stereotype.
- We received applications from several well-dressed native applicants.
This language implies that well-dressed indigenous people are an anomaly. This, of course, isn’t true. There are well-dressed indigenous people and poorly-dressed non-indigenous people.
Also, see section 4 about terms of self identification.
3. Avoid insulting adjectives
Closely related to the previous two sections, using adjectives that have questionable racial or ethnic connotations or have racist overtones is problematic. For example,
- Culturally deprived
Using adjectives like these when referring to an ethnic group can perpetuate stereotypes and interferes with the ability to present facts objectively.
4. Be aware of self-identification
How we prefer to refer to an ethnic group is less important than how they refer to themselves.
- Black(s), not Negro(es)
- Indigenous people(s) in Canada, not Indigenous Canadians
- Inuk/Inuit, not Eskimo
Use their identification preferences as a way to show cultural sensitivity.
Also, keep in mind that some cultures may use language to refer to each other, but such language is unacceptable for a person outside of the community to use. For example, black people might call one another nigger or indigenous people might call one another indian. Inter-community word usage is not necessarily free license for anyone to use such language.
Educate yourself on self-identification before using terms to refer to groups of people.
5. Avoid dog whistling
Related to section 3, some language can be used as a sort of neutral code to refer to an ethnic group without sounding overtly racist.
As author Ian Haney López says, “You can’t publicly say black people don’t like to work, but you can say there’s an inner-city culture in which generations of people don’t value work.” In this case, inner-city (and similar phrases, like urban) becomes synonymous for black, and the solution to “inner-city problems”, of course, is “law and order”, implying that communities of people of colour are lawless.
As I mentioned previously, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you’ve found it useful. If you have tips you want to add, let me know in the comments below.
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