Why You Should Avoid Using Racist Language

Drop outdated terms and don't make assumptions

Language has long played a role in racism and race relations. The words one uses have the power to offend others or to honor them. Given the importance of language, it’s no wonder that in the 21st century, Americans still debate whether slurs such as the N-word should be used, the appropriate labels for racial minority groups or which expressions to avoid because they have roots in white supremacy. But using inoffensive language isn’t just about political correctness, it’s about valuing others and building bridges with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

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Developing Racial Sensitivity

Dictionary. Greeblie/Flickr.com

Are you confused about which terms to use to describe different racial groups or which terms to avoid because they’re offensive? Take a crash course in racial sensitivity with this overview of racially offensive language. Also, learn how to respond when someone tells a racist joke and why it’s not always helpful to call someone racist, even when the person has exhibited racist behavior. This doesn't mean it's okay to let bigots off the hook for their behavior. It simply means that getting someone who behaves in a racist manner to see the error of their ways is sometimes more important than labeling them.

Knowing what language to use when race is involved can determine if your relationships with diverse groups of people falter or grow. Moreover, appropriate language can help you better manage conflicts based on race.

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The N-Word Debate

Censored. Peter Massas/Flickr.com

The N-word is one of the most controversial terms in the English language. For hundreds of years, it’s been used to dehumanize blacks and other minority groups. But the N-word didn’t die when slavery ended in the 19th century. Today the N-word is as popular as ever. It can be found in songs, films, books, etc.

Yet, there is fierce debate about which groups can use it. Is it only appropriate for blacks to use the term or can others use the term as well? Do all blacks approve of the word’s use? Why do people insist on using a word that’s caused so much pain and suffering? This overview of the N-word highlights the celebrities who’ve used the word and the ones who’ve come out against the slur. It also rounds up the views that everyday African Americans have about the N-word, its history and its use today.

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Questions Not to Ask Mixed-Race People

Actress Rashida Jones
The daughter of a white Jewish mother, Peggy Lipton, and a black man, Quincy Jones, biracial actress Rashida Jones is light enough to pass for white. Digitas Photos/Flickr.com

In the 21st century, multiracial children are the fastest-growing group of U.S. youth. While this signals that mixed race families are growing increasingly common, members of such families say that they’ve been on the receiving end of stares, discrimination and rude questions. In particular, mixed people take offense to being asked, “What are you?” This question has proven alienating to multicultural people because it suggests that they are oddities of sorts.

Also, parents of biracial children say they find it offensive when strangers ask if they are nannies or caregivers rather than family members. Multiracial family members also find it offensive when cashiers want to ring them up separately, as if it's not possible for people of different races to belong to the same family. This behavior especially proves offensive when such families interact with each other in front of the sales clerk, signifying that they are, in fact, together. These questions and assumptions subtly suggest disapproval of mixed-race families.

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Questions to Avoid Asking People of Color

Questions graphic
Questions not to ask people of color. Valerie Everett/Flickr.com

People of color complain that they often field inappropriate questions based on stereotypes about their ethnic group. For example, many people harbor the notion that Asian Americans and Latinos are all immigrants, so when they run into individuals with these backgrounds, they ask, “Where are you from?”

When the person responds Detroit or Los Angeles or Chicago, these people persist, “No, where are you from, really?” This question is offensive to minorities because many come from families that have lived in the United States for as long or longer than families with European roots. But that’s far from the only offensive question people of color report that they are often asked. They also complain about strangers asking to touch their hair or whether they’re service people—valets, store clerks, nannies—when they encounter them in businesses, restaurants and other establishments.