A Writer’s Resource for Deconstructing Racist Language

Editor’s note: We at Verblio are working to define the action items Verblio can, and should, take to be actively anti-racist, amplify Black voices, reconstruct industry framework(s) and systems to be equitable and inclusive, and model for others how to effect positive change. 

Part of our responsibility as a content creation platform and community is to ensure that all writers and clients feel included, heard, and celebrated, and that the writings that those writers produce reflect those same values. 

As a result, one of our own brilliant writers, Donna G., is a writer, educator, and author. She received a B.A. in psychology and Africana studies from Rutgers University. She has researched and curated this resource to deconstruct racist language through writing. Regrettably, there is a lot of racism embedded in our English language and culture throughout the centuries that we must take time to mindfully deconstruct.


The recent tragedies regarding the killings of Black persons in this country, chiefly George Floyd, have sparked protests around the globe. People of all races have joined in the fight and are willing to engage now more than ever in the struggle for justice. The passion that has fueled protests worldwide has created a momentum for change in areas such as criminal justice, professional sports, and workplace environments.

This is an exciting time to be sure, but supporting the Black community is more than writing an open letter or posting “BLM” on social media. This moment requires action.

Members of the writing community can play a pivotal role. We can facilitate anti-racist messaging — not only with the character of our content but also with the content of our characters, from how we tell stories to the words and phrases we choose to tell those stories.

This resource is a guide for those who want to write meaningful stories that move us forward. It is for the entirety of the writing community—regardless of the race or ethnicity with which you may identify. But for those White persons who are a part of this community, you have a singular responsibility to evaluate and modify harmful practices due to the position of power afforded to you because of race. You may not agree with all the suggestions, and that’s fine. The complications of race in this society are like an enormous, tangled ball of yarn that we are all trying to unravel. We are all learning. 

But we should all agree that racism is inexcusable and acknowledge the responsibility we have in reliably creating work that is thoughtful and inclusive.

WHAT STEPS CAN WE TAKE AS WRITERS?

We are in a moment where a spotlight shines on systemic racism—the malicious practices that are inherently woven into the fabric of society and infect areas such as housing, employment, and education, historically keeping people of color pressed down and locked out.

These systems of oppression also exist in the media, although their presence in such spaces often evades scrutiny. This is unfortunate but seems to be rapidly changing, given current events. Historically, transgressions in storytelling that have oppressed persons of color have been blatant. Most of the time, Black people did not have a voice.

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(Photo by Chase Baker on Unsplash)

When specifically addressing how to be a proponent of anti-racist messaging in writing, it is especially vital to understand the power of language — and imperative that we dig deep into our words, phrasing, and intent. Until there is some historical context and education around the issue of racist language and its effects, there will probably not be any interest or demand by those in power to dismantle the ideologies and practices wherein these systems flourish.

So, what are we talking about here? Whether it’s an investigation into police brutality leading to changes in laws that support enforcement or revamping school curriculums that have promoted the miseducation of Black stories, Black people and allies of this community are not asking for change, they are demanding it. 

A new day is dawning in which change is required. You can choose to get with it or get left behind. But a refusal to change signifies a complicit nod to prejudice and willful culpability.

  • This change will require a reevaluation of the way things have always been done. It will be necessary to rethink phrases that may be commonplace, dissect the meaning of words, and question comfortable habits that most likely never have been challenged as destructive or offensive.
  • This change will require stepping outside of comfort zones, surveying long-standing relationships, and opening oneself up to new relationships.
  • This change will require examination and self-reflection regarding ways that you may have unwittingly participated in the oppression of people of color through your writing and language in general.
  • This change will require developing an understanding of the damaging ways in which language has historically been used overtly and covertly to demean, influence attitudes, and make way for legislation, the adverse effects of which continue to be experienced today.
  • This change will require truth in storytelling. Not just getting the facts correct but also bringing perspective, deconstructing stereotypes, and acknowledging how personal biases affect language.

Current “status quo” practices are not sufficient or tolerable for this new global shift. Our communication must be genuinely inclusive of all the voices that, for so long, have been left out and ignored.

There is a need for those who are humble and bold, respectful and brave—those who have a willingness to listen, learn, and have the hard conversations before ever putting pen to paper (or keystroke to keyboard). And those who have decided that they are, then, ready to act.

PRE-WRITING REQUISITES

Racism is a complex subject to address. It is best not to have a know-it-all attitude or try to dive right into writing without taking some time for exploration and self-reflection. Below you will find some recommendations to assist you as a writer in your quest to be an ally to the Black community.

Educate Yourself

Education is essential because of the insidious nature of racist practices. This Google doc is an excellent, comprehensive place to gain a rudimentary understanding of specific terms such as systemic racism, White privilege, and White fragility, as well as this blog post with resources for any age from our partners at Eskalera. Assess your thoughts about these concepts. Developing self-awareness will help you recognize any inherent biases, so you can address them and prevent them from bleeding into your writing. It will also inform you about the correct usage of common terms such as prejudice, discrimination, and racism that you may be using incorrectly.

Listen to Marginalized Voices

Throughout history and even until present day, Black voices have been muted—the concerns and realities of people of color have been minimized, delegitimized, or altogether silenced. Therefore, it is necessary for writers to listen, not to become an expert in someone else’s story, but to gain an understanding to write with intelligence from a perspective of empathy. Listening involves remaining quiet while attending to the subject of the story as that person reveals the essential details.                                           

Engage in Dialogue

Writing is not just about writing. It is about reading (educating and listening) as well as exchanging ideas. For many, this will not be an easy or comfortable challenge. Again, to the White members of the writing community, this may mean having conversations in which you are confronted with your own misguided assumptions and ways in which your ideologies have harmed others, maybe even some whom you consider friends.

TAKING ACTION: WRITING WITH DECONSTRUCTION IN MIND

Now we come to the part of this guide that addresses practical actions you can take as you begin to write content that fosters an anti-racist message. So, how do you write with deconstruction at the forefront? And what exactly does it mean to deconstruct racist language?

In simple terms, deconstruction refers to the dismantling or taking down/taking apart of ‘implicit, negative stereotypes‘ and replacing them with positive associations. It is about creating a new system that is truly inclusive. It also involves speaking up ‘in the face of hatred.’ 

In the context of writing, this involves a two-step process. As alluded to above, there needs to be a re-examination of language that may appear innocuous because it has been used for years or is not glaringly racist. Then there must be a correction phase involving the removal or revision of certain words and phrases as well as adopting informed practices for the proper use of other words and phrases.

The Black vs. White Debate

Throughout this guide, I have capitalized the ‘B’ in Black because I guess I am of the camp for which this action resonates a sense of respect, identity, or ‘conferral of dignity.’ However, this is by no means a consensus opinion as a fierce debate continues about the capitalization of both Black and White when speaking about race. Still, many in the writing community are adapting their practices to include capitalizing the letter ‘B,’ including recent recommendations from the Chicago Manual of Style (which also suggests capitalizing the ‘W’ in White).

Why has this conversation surfaced? At the center of the debate are several arguments for or against different iterations of the adaptation (all of which I will not elaborate on here). But suffice it to say that concepts of distinctness, power, identity, culture, understanding, and respect are all wrapped up in the complicated history that continues to fuel the current discourse.

So, what is the rationale for capitalizing the letter ‘B?’ Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at NYU, states that “A good reason to capitalize the racial designation ‘black,’ then, is precisely that black, in this sense, is not a natural category but a social one — a collective identity — with a particular history. (“Race is psychology, not biology” is a formulation Du Bois once offered.) What’s more, the very label ‘black’ plays a role in generating that identity.” 

Another philosopher from MIT, Susan Haslanger, argues for the capitalization of both the letters ‘B’ and ‘W’ when referring to race. Her position aims to “highlight the artificiality of race.” And she posits that as such, we should not let these human-made constructs “disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives.”

The bottom line is that “the process of language reform is complicated.” Although there is yet to be a consensus on the issue, a shift is occurring where many in the writing community are choosing to favor capitalizing the letter ‘B.’ Whatever side of the argument you fall, it is helpful to recall these words of advice to inform your practice. Appiah urges those in the writing community to “remember that black and white are both historically created racial identities — and avoid conventions that encourage us to forget this.”

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(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

The Language of Microaggressions

If you are unclear about the meaning of microaggression, you can refer back to this resource. But a simple definition of microaggression is everyday, subtle, intentional, though often unintentional “expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism.” Because they are frequently inadvertent, many people are not aware that they are committing these offenses. Therefore, education is crucial because these words that are spoken can easily become words that are written.

How do you root out the prejudices that enable such language? Besides educating yourself, you should always think before you speak. Make a deliberate habit of stopping before you speak (or type), considering whether biases or ignorance may be underlying your message. Andrew Limbong notes that this may feel like a lot of work, but that people of color have often borne the burden of educating White people about issues pertaining to “the black experience.” He explains that being a “true ally” involves putting in the work.

Often that ‘work’ involves saying nothing when you are tempted to voice an opinion or ask a question. But it also includes treating all people with dignity and respect. Here are some common microaggressions

Pay attention to how these types of comments can easily slip into your writing sending an unintentional message that may be viewed as insulting by not only people of color but other marginalized groups as well. Below are a few examples. Not all of them are directed at persons of color, but they will give you an idea of the hurtful nature of such remarks and ways to prevent them from influencing your writing.

1. “You’re so articulate.”

This statement is often made by a White person to a Black person, intended as a compliment.

Message: This comment is rooted in a biased mindset that supposes that Black persons are of sub-par intelligence and therefore it is shocking when a member of this group is well-spoken.

Transform your writing: It is not necessary to offer praise about peoples’ speaking abilities. Instead focus on their specific ideas.

2. “The way you’ve overcome your disability is so inspiring.”

Again, someone making this comment to a person with a disability generally does so as a positive expression.

Message: This is similar to the example above in that the expectations for a disabled person are so low. The rationale is that a person with a disability has had so many obstacles to overcome that when a member of this group makes the most minimal of achievements it is seen as praiseworthy.

Transform your writing: Giving a compliment to a person with a disability is fine. But you shouldn’t associate a person’s achievements with their disability.

3. “Your name is so hard to pronounce.”

As an American, names that are not familiar looking may be hard to pronounce or spell. It is normal if you are not a part of a specific culture to have difficulty with certain names.

Message: The problem with bringing attention to your frustration regarding someone’s name is that you are communicating to that person that they don’t fit in (they are an outsider) and you can’t be bothered with learning about them.

Transform your writing: Don’t be tempted to shorten people’s names or give them a nickname that you deem appropriate. Names are important. Make the effort to learn the correct spelling and pronunciation of a person’s name.

4. “Do you even know what Snapchat is?”

Sometimes people may jokingly ask a question such as this to an older person.

Message: Although this may be meant as a joke, the speaker is assuming that because a person is of a certain age, he could not possibly be technologically savvy. This is prejudice based on age.

Transform your writing: Don’t make assumptions about people due to their age. Instead seek to share valuable information in clear ways regardless of the audience.

5. “Is that your real hair?”

This is a complex question that is steeped in historical implications that have affected Black women’s self-esteem. It is frequently asked of a Black woman regarding her natural hair.

Message: Taking exceptional interest in someone’s natural hair highlights a certain hair texture as different and possibly undesirable.

Transform your writing: It is not necessary to comment on a person’s natural hair unless that is the subject of your writing. Different hair textures do exist just as there are persons with different skin colors. However, when it comes to writing about hair textures that may be ‘different,’ take care not to use words that connote a negative meaning such as ‘unprofessional’ or ‘bad hair.’

Change Your Vocabulary

Whereas I have discussed that a significant response to deconstructing racist language revolves around education and self-awareness, the result of this exploration must result in the removal of certain offensive words from your vocabulary. Again, these are everyday words and phrases of which their meanings you may be unaware, but which may be harmful, nonetheless.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the PR industry is 89.7% White. The lack of varied perspectives in the PR industry and digital marketing spaces is alarming considering that the U.S. is soon to become a White minority country. This disparity presents a problem for the inclusion of diverse messaging but also sheds light on the work that needs to be done. Though numerous common phrases may be hurtful to people of color, as a content creator, here is a short list of five phrases that you can start eliminating from your writing now.

1. “Urban” or “inner-city”

Many people use the words urban or inner-city when referring to metropolitan landscapes. Although the term urban began as a word to describe ‘city dwellers’ it gradually morphed into a catch-all for ‘people of color in high need communities.’ But these expressions are not synonyms for black neighborhoods or people of color.

Appropriate terminology: ‘City dwellers’ or ‘metropolitan population.’

2. “No can do”

“No can do” may sound like it is merely shorthand to state that someone cannot do something. The term actually has racist origins as it was coined to make fun of immigrants who could not speak fluent English.

Appropriate terminology: It is better to clearly write out the thought such as: ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I’m unable to do that.’

3. “Dreadlocks”

There is still a debate about the use of the term ‘dreadlocks’ in reference to this particular hairstyle. Some who wear this hairstyle may find this term insulting as there may be negative connotations associated with the word ‘dread,’ whereas others do not ascribe to such beliefs.

Appropriate terminology: It is probably best to refer to the hairstyle as ‘locs’ or ‘locks.’ Everyone will understand what you mean, and no one will be offended.

4. “Grandfather clause” or “grandfathered in”

This is another one of those seemingly ordinary phrases that most of us never give a second thought to when using it in speech or writing. However, ‘grandfather clause’ has racist origins because it “was often associated with efforts to disenfranchise African Americans after the Fifteenth Amendment was passed.”

Appropriate terminology: Other words you can use to express this idea are ‘old rule,’ ‘inherited,’ or ‘precedent.’

5. “Tipping point”

Usually someone uses this phrase to communicate that a situation is on the verge of reaching its limit. The history of this phrase has its roots in the experience of White families fleeing a neighborhood due to the arrival of Black families. This phenomenon was referred to as the ‘tipping point.’

Appropriate terminology: Some alternative word choices are ‘boiling point,’ ‘the limit,’ or ‘the final straw.’

When it comes to the current climate of demonstrations in opposition to injustice, we must all realize that change is not coming — change is here. And for the writing community, change is needed because words are important. The stories we tell impact those whom the story is about and those who are reading the story. And because, as Heather C. McGhee, a public policy expert, notes, “We are all connected” and “racism is bad for everyone.” The importance of storytelling, journalism, and preserving and sharing information is vital to our progress, our survival.

Additional Resources for Your Consideration

The point of this guide is to give you some tools as you start on your journey to understanding more about racism, racist language, and how you can eliminate these biases from your writing.

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(Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash)

There is a great deal of information out there. I would stress, as others have, not to become overwhelmed. We should instead view our education into anti-racism as a life-long process for which many of us are at the starting point.

Anti-Racism Guides/Books/Thought Leaders

  • Anti-Racism (compiled by Tasha K)
    • Another excellent guide (in addition to the one mentioned above) that is packed with recommended readings spanning topics such as immigration, parenting, mass incarceration, as well as fiction, and people group studies. It also has links to relevant movies, podcasts, and shares suggestions for leaders in the field to follow.

More Examples of Hurtful Language

  • Racial Microaggressions (adapted from American Psychologist; ‘Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice’ (2007).
    • This lists some additional examples of microaggressions and the messages they convey.
  • Other Words and Phrases
    • This source highlights different offensive words and phrases according to industry usage and in everyday speech.

As a writer, you have a privilege and a responsibility. It is a privilege to create content that will inform, challenge, and shape the thinking of persons you will never encounter face-to-face. The words you choose have power.

Consider the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. These violent acts perpetrated upon Black persons have been recounted in the last few months in traditional news media and social media with heightened urgency. But how will these stories continue to be told into the future? And who will have the necessary compassion, knowledge, and skill to bring forth the narratives of those in the Black community daily with respect and intelligence?

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