Words Matter: Words and Phrases We Need to Retire

We need to choose our words carefully to avoid microaggressions. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As language educators, we teach students the importance of looking at shades of meaning and of choosing our words carefully when communicating.  However, do we teach students to consider how their words may impact those from minority racial backgrounds?  A microaggression is a seemingly small statement that directly or indirectly insults someone on the basis of their race.  We need to help our students learn how to avoid words and phrases that are microaggressions. Here are a few words and idiomatic expressions that we should consider replacing.

1.Slave – By calling people slaves, we are identifying human beings as property.  Yet nobody is born a slave.  People are born as potential physicians, lawyers, mechanics, goldsmiths, teachers, mothers, merchants, and so much more.  When Africans were captured in their homeland, they were enslaved and this practice was continued with their descendants.  By changing the word from slave to enslaved, we are placing the onus of the dehumanizing practice on those who practiced slavery rather than on the victims of the practice.  We are honoring the pain and victimization of African Americans.  If this sounds like splitting hairs, think about the words kidnap and kidnapper.  We don’t have a special word for the victim of the kidnapping.  Instead, victims are kidnapped.  Why are the words set up this way?  Because the onus of the horror is on the kidnapper, not the person who is kidnapped.  

2. Black and white. Any idiomatic phrase where colors take on the idea of black being bad and white being good play into negative racial stereotypes and are therefore insulting to those who identify racially as Black.  For instance, the phrases white knight, representing a hero, and black knight representing a crooked businessman both play into those false stereotypes.  Furthermore, the phrase white lie used for a harmless fib suggests that the “whiteness” of the lie makes the lie less sinful.  And to blacklist or blackball someone is to keep someone from being able to get a job or participate in an activity, again suggesting that black is bad. Also, the black sheep of the family is the family member who is judged poorly for some character flaw, thereby reiterating this idea that white is good and black is bad. 

While some of these phrases can be replaced by other idiomatic expressions, not all can be replaced.  For instance, rather than calling someone a white knight, it is just as easy to refer to them as a knight in shining armor.  However, for phrases such as blackball, it may simply be easier to speak literally.  Of course, once in a while, we may even want to consider making up our own phrases.  For instance, rather than saying that not everything is black or white, but that there are shades of grey which can be interpreted as not everything is good (white) or bad (black) but somewhere in between (grey), I like to say that not everything is red or blue, but there can be shades of purple.  Perhaps someday, my invented phrase will catch on.

Of course, idiomatic expressions where white and black are used without such connotations can still be used.  For example, saying that something is in black and white references the idea of something being in print rather than ideas of good and bad.  Therefore, this idiomatic expression can be used without worrying about committing a microaggression.

3. Eenie meenie miney moe – If you are my age and grew up in the United States, you probably used this children’s rhyme to make decisions as a kid such as which flavor ice cream you would eat or which friend would be on your team; however, it’s probably time to retire the rhyme.  The original version was racially offensive where instead of catching a tiger by the toe, the original rhyme was to catch a n_____ by the toe.  While the horrifying racial epithet was replaced, the original version is so insulting, that we should not be using the rhyme any more.

4. Grandfather ClauseThe idea of a grandfather clause refers to someone or something being exempt from a policy because of their prior existence or membership to an institution.  For instance, a company may institute a policy lessening the number of weeks employees can take for vacation.  However, this policy will only apply to new employees.  All employees that were already in the institution may be grandfathered into the old, longer vacation plan.  Although this phrase may seem innocent, this is another case where the origin of the expression is disturbing.  When enslaved individuals were emancipated and the 15th Amendment provided Blacks the right to vote, the powerful White state officials in the South created barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests.  Because these barriers could potentially prevent poor White constituents from voting and thereby, receive large scale resistance, they invented the idea of a grandfather clause, allowing those who had been able to vote before Black enfranchisement to be grandfathered in to continue voting.  Because of the original use of the term grandfather clause, we should not continue to use it and thus indirectly, give legitimacy to the unconstitutional and racially discriminatory practice.

5. Westward Expansion – This term is used to title a Social Studies unit in US History that refers to the White population moving west.  This term essentially disregards the fact that there were already ancient civilizations west of where European Americans had settled, and hence, erases Native American history, and suggests that it required Europeans to “expand” civilization.  Rather than using such a derogatory term against Native Americans, why not title the unit to say what we mean, “European American migration west?”  (Read here for more terms that are insulting towards Native Americans.)

One comment

  1. […] Microaggressions are seemingly small statements or actions that indirectly or subtly insult or harm … When it comes to Asians, it is not easy to see why assuming intelligence is harmful.  The model minority myth is the assumption that all Asians are highly intelligent and hardworking, therefore, successful in educational settings, especially in math and science.  An extension of this myth is that Asians are only doctors and engineers.  While this micro aggression sounds like a complement, (I mean who doesn’t want to be considered intelligent), it is harmful because it reduces an entire race to a caricature.  It prohibits individual differences and can potentially mask an Asian student’s need for academic intervention, especially in math and science.  Because this intelligence is most often narrowly associated with high paying STEM fields, Asian students who have a passion for liberal arts, creative fields, or sports often feel pressured to fit in and therefore, have to put aside their own passions and enter more ostensibly lucrative fields in which they have little to no interest.  The pressure to fit into this myth is likely one of the causes of higher than average suicidal ideations among American-born, Asian American women compared to other races. Statements such as, “I expect better from you” to an Asian American student who may be struggling in school, or “Are you going to become a doctor or engineer when you grow up?” are examples of statements that can pierce at Asian students’ identities. […]


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