Racist language – not so black and white

How to avoid being unintentionally offensive

bookediting.co.uk editor Lee Dickinson

By Lee Dickinson

The racism debate is coming to a page near you.

If you write or edit anything, be aware the reflection and rage after George Floyd’s death isn’t confined to the streets. As the focus widened from anger at the authorities in the US to the likes of statues in the UK, social media was already alive with arguments about racist language. If you post on any social platform, write a blog or books, have a website, or write any company literature, you could be next in line for wrath.

Spooked by that? Please don’t be, because “spook” is one  example of a word now dubbed racist.

Such pitfalls make writing before you had to weigh every word seem like a picnic. Please don’t say that either, because “picnic” is another.

The list of provocative words is jaw-dropping, and I’ve included some below. There are too many for it to be exhaustive, however, and that’s the problem. How do you write these days without fear of offending?

For me as an editor and writer, it’s an eye-opener. Language by its nature becomes as embedded as those controversial statues, so negotiating a safe path is like tip-toeing through a minefield. To focus my mind even more, I’m about to schedule the editing of a book about Rudolf Hess, Winston Churchill and the Nazis. Gulp.

For that novel, I’ll have to consider racism alongside historical accuracy, the author’s wishes and potential charges of “airbrushing” history. For simpler manuscripts, the best safeguards seem to be sensitivity and staying as updated as possible on potential problems.

Should you avoid or change the likes of “blackmail”, “black sheep”, “blacklist”, “black mark”, “blackball” or “black market”?

Psychotherapist Dee Watts-Jones1 said such “subtle racism” offends her. “The English language is in bed with racism,” she wrote. “Regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism. With a term like black sheep, consider coming up with another term.”

It can’t hurt to look for non-offensive alternatives, can it? I find Watts-Jones’ suggestion of a replacement for “black sheep” obtrusive and unrealistic, because she suggests “one-down” sheep?

That won’t be making it into anything I edit but, depending on the context, something like “outcast” or “pariah” might. For “blackmail”, we might use something like “extortion”, for “black mark” could substitute “blemish”, replace “blacklist” with “boycott”, use “veto” for “blackball”, “illicit” for “black market”.

The context is important, but you get the idea. Editors change words constantly, so is it much of an extra effort to change a few more?

The examples above are obvious but, as promised, here’s some you might not know:  

  • Spook – Used as a racist slur historically, say race and identity reporting team Code Switch
  • Picnic – Debated by some, but widely reported to be associated with racist mobs and an abbreviated form of “pick one to lynch”
  • Hip hip hooray – A rallying cry, apparently, for 19th-century racists who rounded up Jews
  • Black – A raft of respected writers’ style guides have now reviewed and pronounced “Black”, not “black”, as correct when referring to a person, not a general colour
  • Uppity – Originally used in the US to refer to any slave who stood up to racism
  • Long time no see – Native Americans were mocked with this as a reference to their traditional greeting
  • Sold down the river – Another phrase related to the slave trade, which transported captives to cotton plantations via the Mississippi or Ohio rivers
  • No can do – An imitation of pidgin English originally used to mock Chinese immigrants
  • Scalp – According to one language watchdog, this should be avoided because of connotations of violence toward indigenous people.

A minefield indeed. And, to be ultra-careful, should we also avoid the likes of “thug”, “cannibal”, “vandal”, “hooligan” and “barbarian”? Have all these words evolved, becoming far removed from the original, removing any offence? To many, no.

As the words above show, it’s easy to transgress accidentally. But, if you stumble into ‘racism’ that way, it’s simple to consider the offence to others once it’s pointed out and fix it. For those helping to modernise our language by revealing such issues, it should also be easy to remember the offence is usually unintended. Only by calmly working together can we use words to heal wounds.

Other resources to help spot potentially racist language:

https://www.dictionary.com/e/s/offensive-words-hiding-plain-sight/#dark-past

http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/March2003/05-language-awareness-sensitivity-uk.htm

https://www.thoughtco.com/avoid-these-five-racial-terms-2834959

https://www.fastcompany.com/90239290/six-business-phrases-that-have-racist-origins

[1] Dee Watts-Jones, Confronting the Language of Subtle Racism (https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/
1318/confronting-the-language-of-subtle-racism
)

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.