Companies and organisations tend to have their own tone of voice and follow a specific style guide for content creation.
Few may specifically stress in their style guides that they want to avoid racist language; it should be a given.
But their writers and content creators may be inadvertently using language that has racist connotations. There are many terms that have become widely used in the English language over time that have racist underpinnings that most people have no clue about.
Here are just some of them:
Nitty gritty: the true origins of many historical phrases are up for debate, and nitty gritty is one of them. But nitty gritty, defined as the details or basic facts of a situation, is said to have origins with links to the time of slavery.
Master bedrooms: take your lead from estate agents across the UK who are reportedly banning the use of the term master bedroom due to its links with slavery and sexism. It can be replaced with ‘primary’ or ‘principal’ bedroom.
Blacklist/whitelist: the origins of these terms aren’t thought to be directly connected to race, but they could reinforce notions that black is bad and white is good. The same goes for terms like ‘whiter than white’.
Cakewalk: probably more popular in American English, a cakewalk is used to describe something that is done or achieved easily. But the cakewalk originated as a dance performed by enslaved Black people on plantations before the Civil War.
Sold down the river: referring to a great betrayal, this expression dates from the mid-1800s, and alludes to slaves being sold down the Mississippi River.
Uppity: defined in dictionaries as self-important or arrogant, this word was in fact used by white people during racial segregation in the US to describe black people who they thought did not show them enough respect.
Chances are, you’ve used at least one of these in words or phrases without knowing their problematic past.
But following the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this summer, there has been a shift towards reconsidering the language used, and that should certainly include anyone writing content. We should all educate ourselves about what words and phrases are appropriate to use and which aren’t.
If you want to protect both your readers and the reputation of the site where your content is published, then you need to carefully consider the language you use.
This is already starting to happen. Both Sky Sports and BBC Sports have been in the news recently for banning pundits and commentators from using such language.
There are always other ways of expressing things clearly and succinctly without using language that can be offensive to some people.
Avoiding terms that have racist connotations is just a start. Here’s some reading for more information about using inclusive language more broadly: