5 offensive phrases communicators must avoid

Many common sayings we write and speak have racist origins. Use these terms instead.

5 phrases to stop using

Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2020 as part of our year-end countdown.

The PR industry is charged with influencing and swaying media conversations on-air, online and in print.

As we face this generation’s largest civil rights moment, it’s our duty and responsibility to ensure our communication and the professional counsel we provide are respectful and culturally sensitive.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the PR industry is 89.7% white. The severe lack of diversity in the industry indicates many PR teams may lack cultural depth and knowledge to provide credible counsel, especially now. The homogeneous makeup of the industry is why so many brand statements have fallen short, and it’s contributed to mass acceptance of racially damaging labels as part of everyday language.

The promise of meaningful change is underway. Grammy-winning country trio, Lady Antebellum, changed its name to Lady A. because antebellum is used to denote a romanticized image of the American South prior to the Civil War during times of slavery.

California restaurant Sambo’s will change its name after a consumer launched an online petition challenging the offensive name and hurtful imagery. Sambo is a derogatory term used to refer to people who were of Indigenous American or African origin and also a term for people with ancestry from multiple races. Today, we use the term biracial, interracial or multicultural.

A vital step PR pros must take right now is to educate ourselves on offensive terms that are ingrained in everyday conversation and work to remove them from their vocabulary. Here are five examples to start with:

1. “Urban” or “inner-city”

While you might have thought you were just referring to people living within the metropolitan area of a city, the connotation extends beyond mere geography. In the U.S., “urban” is born out of racial stereotyping of black communities, and it’s most often a reference to generalize and marginalize people of color in high-need communities.

If you’re referring to your target audience as “urban” or “inner city” because it seems more politically-correct than naming the actual group you really mean—please stop. Urban is not a synonym for people of color. Inner city is not a synonym for black neighborhoods.

The GRAMMYs recently announced that it will stop using “urban” in award categories to describe music with Black origins. Republic Records (Drake and Ariana Grande’s record label) has dropped it too.

What to say instead: To refer to people living within a city, use “metropolitan population” or “city-dwellers.” When referring to a lower income economic class, “low-income” or “high-need” might be appropriate terminology. If you want to refer to a racial or ethnic group, be sure to do the research and learn the appropriate term for that group (e.g., knowing the difference between Latinx or Hispanic).

2. “No can do”

“No can do” is common slang to express an inability to do something, but its origins are racist. “No can do” was used to poke fun at Chinese immigrants who didn’t speak fluent English, beginning in the 19th century. There is a similar history with the phrase “long time no see.”

What to say instead: Simply swapping stating, “I can’t do that,” “I am unable to do that now,” or “It’s not possible” are good alternatives.

3. “Dreadlocks”

There has been a lot of debate surrounding the hairstyle often referred to as “dreadlocks,” in terms of phrasing and cultural appropriation, and both are important.

“Dread” was attached to the hairstyle’s name when the style first entered the U.S. as a way to label them as dreadful or dreaded. The hairstyle has a cultural history in African, Jamaican, African-American and some Indian cultures.

What to say instead: The appropriate name for the hairstyle is simply “locks” or “locs.”

4. “Grandfather clause” or “Grandfathered in”

While you may mean to refer to an old rule applying to a new situation, “grandfather clause” is a term that was often associated with efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans after the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Eventually, this clause was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for being discriminatory and unconstitutional.

What to say instead: Using “old rule,” “inherited” or “precedent” are options that might convey what you’re trying to communicate.

5. “Tipping point”

“Tipping point” was a phrase coined in the ‘50s and ‘60s to describe white families moving out of a neighborhood because of the influx of African Americans. Today, it’s often used to refer to a critical moment, usually with negative connotations.

What to say instead: Alternatives may include, “boiling point,” “I/We reached my/the limit,” “we’ve reached a crossroad” or “this is the final straw.”

The insensitive and hurtful phrases in our vocabulary include more than the above phrases. Having to learn and keep up common terminology that is actually offensive can be uncomfortable and overwhelming, especially in an industry with limited diversity and perspectives.

Embracing opportunities to listen, learn and share your knowledge with colleagues will work to strengthen you as a communicator, and as a respectful, kind human.

Toni Harrison is CEO of Etched Communication, A Ten35 Co., a full-service, MWBE-certified agency with offices in Houston and Chicago. 


3 Responses to “5 offensive phrases communicators must avoid”

    Jerry Cail says:

    I never thought I was racist before because I grew up and played sports and had close friends with many different kids of color and nationalities. At 78 yrs. old I am not going to search out the ones that are still alive and apologize for my water rights being Grandfathered in or saying floods were the tipping point to closing my business. I don’t thing any of my friends were offended by those terms but it is possible that I am wrong. The problem in this country now is that people take everything as a personal attach and want all conversation to be political correct. Thankfully my offensiveness won’t be around to much longer, but my grandchildren are in for a bumpy ride. I hope non of them feel the need to end it all because due to having a close relationship with me have become offensive to anyone they may have encountered.

    Tim Bradley says:

    I’ve noticed that many publications have begun to capitalize “Black” but not “white” or “brown.” Is there some nuance or significance that I’m missing?

Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.