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Are the Words or Phrases You’re Using Racist?

Posted on: May 11, 2022

The way we use words matters. Words are powerful tools that can build people up or tear them down. When seeking to eliminate racism, it’s important to recognize language as one of the sources of discrimination. Bringing awareness of it is the first step toward change. 

Often, English language speakers use words or phrases that are harmful to others due to their historical or cultural context. While many of these are indirect or unintentional, it’s important to highlight how this might impact a marginalized group of people. Racism has always existed in Canada, but COVID-19 was a catalyst that made this more visible and present.

Blacklist, Black Sheep, Blackmail

While these terms don’t appear to be directly connected to race, the argument is that they reinforce the notion that black is bad, and white is good; black connotes bad, distrust, evil, or ignorance. In tech, a blacklist refers to a directory of specific elements, such as email addresses, IP addresses or URLs that are blocked. Whitelists, by contrast, are made up of elements that are allowed. Tech industries have made efforts to move away from these black or white terms into more neutral territory.

Peanut Gallery

Most modern uses of the term “the peanut gallery” are in reference to a group of people who needlessly criticize or mock another person. This term dates back to the vaudeville era in the late 19th century and is referred to the sections of the theatre where Black people typically sat; the cheapest seats in a theatre.

Grandfathered in

Currently, this phrase refers to someone or a business being exempt from new rules and continue operating as is. Its origin dates back to a 19th-century policy called the “grandfather clause,” which indirectly stopped Black Americans from voting by limiting eligibility to only those whose ancestors could vote.

First-world problem

This phrase conveys that something is only an issue to those who live in a country of privilege and wealth. This statement is classist, conveying that the first world is at the top while dehumanizing another human or group from other countries. 

What Steps Can You Take to Respond to Racism?

If you have used these phrases, it does not make you a bad person. What you do once you find out a word or phrase is rooted in pain for someone who hears it, carries more importance. There are a few ways that you can educate yourself further on how to react to racism experienced or observed.

  1. The Micropedia of Microaggressions is an online encyclopedia of everyday snubs and insults that marginalized groups face. They’re often subtle comments or actions that come from implicit bias or stereotypes.  
  2. Your local library might offer access to the LinkedIn Learning platform with your library card. There are courses such as ‘Allyship and Antiracism’, or ‘The Importance of Discussing Racism’. Online experts teach you the foundational skills—mindset, communication, and advocacy—you need to be an effective ally and champion for anti-racism in your life.
  3. Visit The Province of British Columbia’s  ResilienceBC Anti-Racism Network, a province-wide approach to identifying and challenging racism.
  4. Check-in with your local Settlement Agency. They often run dialogues, workshops, or programs to help people learn how to see and respond to racism in the world around them. 

Language shapes how we see the world around us, consciously, or unconsciously. Becoming aware of our own biases will help us continue working towards a more inclusive Canada. Please consider some of the words or phrases that you use and how they might impact others and use the tools provided to educate yourself further on steps you can take to be mindful of the experiences of others.