Anti-racist language guide

quote from Desmond Tutu: Language is very powerful. Language does not describe reality. Language creates the reality that it describes.

Why this guide?

Language is a powerful tool, and words affect people. At the University of Arizona Libraries, we're committed to creating an inclusive environment. The purpose of this guide is not to be politically correct or to limit free speech, but to help us all communicate in a way that validates our audience, is respectful, and avoids provoking past negative experiences.

This guide helps us recognize and replace harmful language. Unintentionally, we might use words without knowing their past and present contexts, so this guide includes those contexts, assessing words that often go unquestioned.

By being intentional about the words we use (and don't use), we play a small part in breaking the cycle of institutional racism and oppression. Let's also be aware that challenging racist language is an ongoing practice. Language evolves, and doing better requires patience and empathy for both ourselves and others.

Using this guide

Use this guide to support your anti-racist efforts personally and professionally, when you are:

  • writing website content

  • writing an email, a job post, an article, or a news story 

  • creating a presentation

  • speaking with people

Getting started

As you're creating content, start by asking yourself:

  1. Am I using stereotypes or stereotypical phrases? If so, remove them.

  2. Who might this harm? If something might harm someone, change it or remove it.

Also, follow these practices:

  • Be conscious of current and political climates surrounding race and racial discrimination.

  • Acknowledge the historical context and present systemic barriers in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community.

  • Check the history of any idioms before using them (or avoid them).

List of words with racist roots or connotations

Blacklist

  • Use instead: blocked list, closed list
  • Reason: The association of the color black with negative, evil, wrong, or bad carries racist undertones. Because of Black people's history, associating the term black with bad can be harmful.

SourceWong, B. (2020, July 8) .12 Common Words or Phrases with Racist Origins or Connotations. HuffPost. 

Brown bag

  • Use instead: lunch in, lunch and learn
  • Reason: Within the Black community, colorism is a significant problem that stems from slavery. Many slave owners raped enslaved women, producing biracial offspring of a lighter complexion. Slave owners gave preferential treatment to those whose complexion was a lighter brown and often their unclaimed children. A brown bag custom began in the 20th century, where a brown paper bag was placed at event entrances or merely held up to a person of color. If their skin color was darker than the bag, they were not permitted to enter or participate.

Source: Blackthen (2021, April 29) The Back Story: How the Brown Paper Bag Carried "The Color Complex" From Slavery Forward

Cakewalk

  • Use instead: easy, a breeze, a piece of cake

  • Reason: The cakewalk was a dance performed for white people by Black people to mock how white people danced. What was being made fun of was the depiction of how Black people could not be like white people. These contests held by owners included a competition for cake among the Black people forced to participate. The dance was later made famous through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were theatrical shows performed by white people in black faces portraying Black people as lazy, lackadaisical, and dumb. There were also Black-only minstrel shows that exploited Black people for the same reasons.

Source: Shrumm, R. (2016, May 18). Who takes the cake? The history of the cakewalk. National Museum of American History Behring Center. 

Grandfathered in

  • Use instead: legacied, exempted, preapproved
  • Reason: The American South created absurd voting requirements that targeted Black people and made it almost impossible to vote. The name for these requirements is the "Grandfather Clause." They wrote the Amendment in a way to imply the practice was not discriminatory. They created stringent new voter requirements such as literacy tests. These requirements did not apply to people who had voted before 1867. Slaves did not know they were free until June 19, 1865. However, slavery was abolished on January 1, 1863, making it nearly impossible for a person formally kept in captivity to be legally allowed to vote.   

Sources: Greenblatt, Alan. (2013, October 22). The Racial History of the 'Grandfather Clause.' NPR Code Switch.

Hold down the fort

  • Use instead: take charge, take care of things, keep watch
  • Reason: It stems from settlers in North America building forts and guarding them against Native American intruders.

Source: Winters, Mary Francis. (2014, September 4). Words and Phrases That Sting: "Nation of Immigrants" and "Hold Down the Fort." The Inclusion Solution.

Peanut gallery

  • Use instead: audience, crowd, hecklers
  • Reason: Historically, the peanut gallery was an area in the theater with the cheapest seats and reserved mostly for Black people and less affluent immigrants. In the 19th and 20th-century Vaudeville theaters, theatergoers would throw peanuts at the stage in disapproval of the performance. During these two centuries, no one wanted to be associated with the peanut gallery, and today the phrase "the peanut gallery" is used about people no one wants to listen to. 

SourceAndrew, S. & Kaur, H. (2020, July 7). Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations. 

Powwow

  • Use instead: meeting, discussion, gathering, brainstorm
  • Reason: A powwow is a sacred gathering of Native people. Using it to refer to an informal meeting is offensive appropriation of a term of cultural importance to Indigenous Americans.

Source: Merriam Webster. Powwow Definition & Meaning.

Redline; redlining

  • Use instead: annotations, replacement list, editing, marking up, suggesting revisions,
  • Reason: Redlining refers to the discriminatory practices during the Jim Crow era (1877-1964) that sectioned off particular areas within cities based on race and then did not fund those areas nor include them in government-driven programs that helped communities flourish. The act of redlining led to the creation of current-day ghettos and barrios.

Source: Dworkin, D. (2019, April 1). The History of Redlining. National Housing Conference. 

Tipping point

  • Use instead: turning point
  • Reason: In the middle of the 20th century, the term tipping point became synonymous with white flight. As neighborhoods started to desegregate, white people reached a "tipping point" where they would think there were too many Black people present within their communities.

Source: Merriam Webster (n.d.). World History The Racist Origins of 'Tipping Point' Malcolm Gladwell didn't invent the phrase 'tipping point.' 

Well-spoken; articulate (adj.)

  • Use instead: don't use
  • Reason: To refer to a person of color as "articulate" is to assume that the opposite is true; i.e. they have a dialect that is hard to understand. Even if intended as a compliment, avoid descriptors that imply or assume inferiority or reinforce stereotypes.

Source: Wong, B. (2020, July 8) .12 Common Words or Phrases with Racist Origins or Connotations. HuffPost. 

White glove service

  • Use instead: VIP, premium, or personalized service
  • Reason: White glove service became popular after World War II when house servants were Black and given the role of butlers and housekeepers. The racist connotations trace back to minstrel shows where white people don Black face paint and white gloves imitating Black folks portraying them as happy-go-lucky simple people. 

Source: Intuit Content Design. (2021). Abolishing racist language.

Whitelist

  • Use instead: allowed list, open list
  • Reason: The association of the color black with negative and white with positive reflects the negative stereotypes and carries racist undertones. 

Source: Journal of the Medical Library Association. (2018, October 1). "Blacklists" and "whitelists": a salutary warning concerning the prevalence of racist language in discussion of predatory publishing.

Further resources

Inclusive language guide- The University of Queensland Australia

Intuit Content Design: Abolish Racist Language

History.com Editors. (2021, November 18). Slavery in America

About this guide

This guide was originally created in December 2021 by Lauren Dunn, Kenya Johnson, and Rebecca Blakiston. Lauren, Community Engagement Intern, led the effort, and as a person who identifies as Black, focused on addressing anti-Black racism for the initial launch of this guide.

Language evolves, and so does this guide. This guide is not complete and does not reflect all anti-racist language. Reach out to Rebecca or Kenya with additions, suggestions, and other feedback.