Choosing Fair and Inclusive Language

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—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

June 3, 2020 

Choosing Fair and Inclusive Language

“Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names.”

—Toni Morrison

How do you want to feel at work? Welcomed? Valued? Respected? Heard? These should not be lofty aspirations. They should be fundamental tenants of a business culture. And they should apply to all people equally.

You can uphold these values in business communication by choosing fair and inclusive language. This eTip offers recommendations for respecting race and ethnicity in business writing, but many of the same recommendations apply to matters of gender, age, ability, orientation, and religion.

How can I use respectful language?

First, recognize the humanity of all readers. Our shared humanity means that each of us deserves respect. Focus on what unites us, not what divides us. In fact, in business writing, avoid referring to the differences between us unless those differences are key to the issue at hand.

When a reference to race or ethnicity is necessary, use the preferred term of the person or group—the more specific, the better. If the preference is unknown or cannot be known, learn and use appropriate terminology.

Acceptable
General Terms
Acceptable
Specific Terms
Indigenous People, Native American Cherokee Nation, Inuit People, etc.
Asian American (not Orientals) Korean American, Filipino American, Indian American, etc.
Latino, Latina, Latinx, Hispanic Mexican American, Cuban American, etc.
African American, black Kenyan American, Egyptian American, etc.
Anglo Americans (English ancestry), European Americans (Use the general terms to the left to avoid the notion that “American,” used alone, means “white.")

 

  Don't Say  

  Do Say  

Mulatto, mixed multiracial, mixed race
non-white person of color
Caucasian white

How can I respectfully refer to race?

Recognize the limits of your own experience and don’t assume to speak for people with different backgrounds. If readers point out something they find racially or ethnically problematic in your writing, listen to and take the issue seriously, even if it was not your intention to offend. Phrasing that you think is innocuous could be read as hurtful or oppressive to other people. Be receptive and empathetic, not defensive and dismissive.

Show good will and a desire to learn, knowing that language and language preferences evolve through time. Avoid these errors:

  • Never let a racial label or signifier stand in for the person. Always make personhood known.
    • Don't Say: a black or the whites
    • Do Say: a black woman or white people
  • Never use words or images that reinforce racial or ethnic stereotypes. Be particularly mindful of language that creates false hierarchies by positioning one racial or ethnic group as inferior to another.
  • Use neutral terms and avoid words with racial connotations. Learn about and eliminate microaggressive comments. 
  • Learn and avoid common expressions with a history rooted in racism or oppression. For example, the expression “grandfathered in” has discriminatory origins. Learn more examples here.

Most of all, write to other human beings, using respect and good intention. And a little humility goes a long way. For example, our recommendations above may be well researched, but we realize they are not exhaustive, and we’ll continue to learn about this topic and share what we discover.

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Play the Editor!

The following sentences use discriminatory language and terminology. Rewrite each sentence using fair and inclusive language. Scroll down to see our recommendations.

  1. Our Filipino accountant caught a critical book-keeping error. Please extend our gratitude to her when you get a chance. 
  2. The new scholarship will support inner-city youth. 
  3. We're working to extend job opportunities to reservation Indians. 
  4. The language and imagery of this social media post is insensitive to non-whites.
  5. I recommend we have Chen give the presentation. He's actually incredibly articulate.
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Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and past eTips for resources for choosing fair and precise words.

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Editor’s Recommendations

  1. Liezel in accounting caught a critical book-keeping error. Please extend our gratitude to her when you get a chance. (Liezel's ethnicity has no relevance to her accounting skills. She should be identified by her name, not a racial or ethnic label.) 
  2. The new scholarship will support youth from under-resourced neighborhoods in the city. ("Inner-city" has negative racial connotations; "under-resourced neighborhoods" is both neutral and more specific.) 
  3. We're working to extend job opportunities to people of the Navajo Nation. (Use "Native American" in place of "Indian" as a general term. In this instance, be specific about the tribal territory.) 
  4. The language and imagery of this social media post is insensitive to people of color. ("Non-white" defines a large swath of people by a negative, as lacking some quality.) 
  5. I recommend we have Chen give the presentation. He knows the material better than anyone else and will do an excellent job. (On the surface, calling someone "incredibly articulate" is compliment. In reality, Chen may very well read this statement as a microaggression. The adverb "actually" could suggest that the writer is surprised that a person of Asian ethnicity would speak in an articulate manner and wants to assure the reader that Chen is up for the task. This microaggression, whether or not intentional, reinforces a negative stereotype about Asian people.)