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How to Identify and Eliminate Racist Language in Your Writing


Many people, writers and non-writers, are confused over what words or terms may be perceived as racist. Here are a few guidelines about what editors and public readers might consider as racist, and how to identify and minimize racist language. I have also included some Before and After examples showcasing instances of prejudicial words.

While most writers would never intentionally use racist terms, it can happen accidentally or ambiguously. The written word usually outlasts the spoken word and can leave a negative impression on the writer as well as the organization he or she represents. Business professionals need to ensure that their choice of words are acceptable in the current time and cultural in which they're writing.

Rule #1: A writer should always consider his or her choice of words as well as the intent of the finished sentence. Words such as "pygmy" or "ghetto" may or may not be racist depending upon the context or the interpretation of the reader. Words such as "negro" or "colored" were used in the 1960s, but we avoid such words in today's written language because they are obsolete and often offensive.

Rule # 2: Try not to hyphenate names when describing an individual's race or ethnicity unless the first name can't stand alone. A hyphen could impress upon the reader that the individual is less than a full member of the culture or society.

Rule # 3: Make sure to keep the writing consistent. Don't write "White people and Blacks." Instead write "White people and Black people." Adjectives and descriptive words can possibly be interpreted as racist. An example would be describing Africa as "darkest Africa."

Rule # 4: Using expressions in writing such as "Indian Giver" or "Mexican Standoff" may be interpreted as racist. Even positive stereotypes can be discriminatory. Writing that "Black people are natural born athletes" should be avoided.

Rule # 5: Writers should avoid referring to any non-white culture or race as "exotic" simply because they are non-white or non-American.

Rule # 6: Writers must assume nothing except what they can support with facts. All "Asian children" are not necessarily good at math and all "Black people" aren't always good dancers.

Identifying Racist Language

Proofreading every sentence of your document can help weed out instances of racism. Sometimes having more than one individual proofread a text is appropriate to get another perspective. What terms are acceptable and unacceptable are constantly changing. When in doubt it is best to consult an online dictionary. In general, don't mention or refer to an individual's race, nationality, or ethnicity unless it is relevant.

Before and After Examples

Here are a few examples of words that a reader might perceive as racist, along with a better alternative.

Ex. # 1: Using the word "Indian" to refer to indigenous people of North or South America is no longer an appropriate term. The preferred terminology is either "American Indian" or "Native American."

Ex. # 2: Using the word "Oriental" to refer to people from East Asia is no longer appropriate. "Asian" is the preferred word, or, more specifically, "South Asian" or "Central Asian." You can also use the name of the specific country in which the person lives. An individual may be called "Chinese" or "Malaysian."

Ex. # 3: "Afro-American," "Colored," or "Negro" are all outdated and offensive terms. "African American" or "Blacks" are considered acceptable.

Ex. # 4: Instead of using the word "Chicano," use "Mexican American" as the alternative. Using the term "Mexican" by itself, however, is generally an unacceptable term. It's better to use "Hispanic" or "Latino," depending on the nationality of the individual.

Ex. # 5: While people may not find the word "Caucasian" offensive, it is an outdated word. The more acceptable word is "White" when referring to white people of non-Latin origin.



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