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Avoiding Racist Language


Language has long played a role in race relations. The words one uses have the power to offend others or 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 racism. 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.

1. Racial Sensitivity

Are you confused about which terms to use to describe racial minorities or which terms to avoid using because they’re offensive to certain groups? Take a crash course in racial sensitivity with this overview on racially offensive language. To boot, 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. Knowing what language to use where race is involved can determine if your relationships with diverse groups of people falters or grows. Moreover, appropriate language can help you better manage conflicts based on race.

2. The N-Word Debate

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 thoughts that ordinary blacks have on the N-word, its history and its use today.

3. Questions Not to Ask Mixed-Race People Families

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In the 21st century, multiracial children are the fastest-growing group of U.S. youth. While this is clearly a sign 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. In addition, mixed-race families say they find it offensive when people behave as if multiracial families don’t exist by asking if the parent of a biracial child is the nanny rather than the mother or father or if multiracial family members who are clearly interacting with each other are, in fact, together. These intrusive questions subtly suggest disapproval of mixed-race families.

4. Questions to Avoid Asking People of Color

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People of color routinely complain that they often field inappropriate questions based on stereotypes about their ethnic group. For example, many people have the notion that Asians and Latinos are all immigrants, so when they run into an individual with this background, 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 proves 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 if they’re service people of sorts—valets, store clerks, nannies, etc.
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