Our world is a diverse place, and the language we use reflects that. I am blessed that the people in my life appreciate this diversity and see it for what it is: a thing of beauty. But with diversity comes cultural interpretation of various words, and, as a white person, I have a responsibility to not only be aware of my privilege, but to also call out abuses of it, both intentional and unintentional. That brings me to the reason for this post: the power that language has.
White people have a horrible habit of taking things that belong to another culture. It started way back, when white Europeans would claim a nation as their own and colonize it, trying their best to rid that place of any other culture other than their own. It continues with culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, treating cultural artifacts as fashion, remaking various culturally specific recipes and giving them new names, turning Indigenous dances into “workouts” (again, with a new name)…I could go on and on here.
I’m as white as you get, with parents direct from the United Kingdom, and just as I believe more men need to become involved in fighting sexist rhetoric and policy, I subscribe firmly to the fact that white people need to step up when it comes to how BIPOC people are treated. Don’t let them do all the work! We’re the ones on a high power trip, here, so it’s us who need to change our ways. Today, I’m writing about changing the way we speak (and write).
THERE ARE CERTAIN WORDS THAT WHITE PEOPLE DO NOT CLAIM OWNERSHIP OF OR ASSOCIATION WITH, AND IT IS TIME TO RECOGNIZE THAT.
The general rule here is that if a word of phrase has a cultural association, please use it only in that context. When white people take a word/phrase that has its origins in another culture and they adapt it for their own purposes, that word/phrase becomes “white washed.” That other culture just had part of its culture taken and changed in meaning, and that isn’t okay, friends. That isn’t okay.
Here are some words that, if you are white, you should please stop using:
- spirit animal: Just because you like sloths does not make them your “spirit animal.” The concept of a “spirit animal” is steeped in Indigenous culture and describes a deep, symbolic meaning that goes way beyond identifying with a particular trait of that animal. So, please, resist the urge to take those online What is Your Spirit Animal quizzes and take the time, instead, to learn about what the concept of a spirit animal means to different cultures (here is a good place to start).
What to use instead: patronus (from Harry Potter), favourite animal, avatar, mascot, champion
- tribe: I see this one all the time in business/life coaching books and said at networking gatherings, encouraging people to “find their tribe” or “embrace their tribe.” I’ve cringed every time I’ve heard it. I don’t think many white people realize what they are saying when they use this phrase, but it is offensive. The word itself has a loaded meaning with respect to African culture (you can read about that here) and has strong associations with Indigenous and Native American cultures as well. Using it to insinuate a group of like-minded people is not what a tribe means. When a white person invites you to become part of a “tribe,” it ignores the cultural relevance of that term.
What to use instead: circle, group, supporters/support system, network, community (my personal favourite)
- pow wow: I sure hope that this word is being phased out of business culture and that the reason for not using it is pretty obvious. Your meeting is not a spiritually based, culturally specific event.
What to use instead: heart-to-heart, conversation, talk, meeting, discuss (really, there are so many options you can use instead…)
- savage: This word has an awful racist history. It does not mean “fierce” or “cool” or “tough,” as I’ve seen it used (especially in the fitness/athletic industries). It’s a racial slur against Indigenous people that needs to be removed from your vocabulary stat.
What to use instead: merciless, unrelenting, bad-ass
- gypped: The Roma people (what some refer to as “Gypsies,” but please don’t use that term—it’s racist) are a real race, despite some people thinking they are a myth or a fantasy (you can learn more about them here). When a white person says they were “gypped,” they are using a racial slur against the Roma people—one that depends on an association with thievery.
What to use instead: taken advantage of, robbed, cheated
- hold the fort/on the warpath/lowest person on the totem pole: A lot of business speak has military origins, but these phrases have a history that is associated with hate and war against Indigenous people. “Hold down the fort” was used as an order for American military troops to guard the fort they made to keep out Indigenous people. “On the warpath” has a similar history. And referring to a person who is either the newest person within a company or has the most junior title in any way associated with a symbol of Indigenous culture is not acceptable.
What to use instead: Most business jargon is just that—jargon—and can be rewritten in regular English (stay here, focus on XYZ, enraged, infuriated, fuming, mad).
- uppity: This word was originally used as derogatory term against African Americans by white people in southern American.
What to say instead: arrogant, snobbish
THE ONLY TIME IT IS ACCEPTABLE TO USE SUCH CULTURAL WORDS IS IF YOU ARE DISCUSSING THAT CULTURE OR ORIGIN OF THE WORD ITSELF.
But it’s just a word! Why are people so sensitive these days? Am I allowed to say anything?
I read a lot, and I read a lot online, and I see comments like these all the time. Here’s the thing: If someone from another culture has said “hey, you know, using that word is offensive to me and my culture,” please just listen to that person and adapt your language accordingly. Don’t argue. Don’t try and make you using it acceptable. This really isn’t about you at all. What you’re doing, then, is attempting to turn something that isn’t okay into something that is accepted. You’re furthering the mainstream use of culturally appropriation of language. You’re ignoring the experiences and feelings of that person to make yourself feel better.
As I’ve said before, words matter. Language has power. Ignoring racial slurs and undertones is another form of oppression. I do believe that many white people just don’t know about some of these (I was guilty of using “gypped” in my 20s, before I learned about the history of the word!), but once you are aware, please do take measures to eliminate these words from your vocabulary.
Also, be aware that language evolves. Think about the word “gay,” for example and how it once was described as a synonym for “happy.” This is no longer the case and to be used as an adjective, in most cases, is discriminatory. Nobody expects you to know the meaning and history behind every single word (unless maybe you’ve authored a dictionary), but you should be aware enough to realize that some words can hurt others and once you know what they are, be a kind human and stop using them.
In business, it goes beyond common courtesy and respect to other human beings. Using any kind of offensive language will distract from your message, making sure that your message is not heard and you are, instead, associated with being insensitive and offensive.
Here are some more sayings you may not have realized are offensive or steeped in racist history.