Have you ever heard or used “colored sugar” to describe brown sugar? Do you ever wonder what’s the big deal about being cookbook_cover_small_editpolitically correct? Are you tired of political correctness and wonder why it is suggested that language should become more sensitive? Miriam Phillips, a friend and colleague of mine came across this term in a recipe. She thought it meant sugar that had been colored by food coloring. When she asked me about it, I too thought the same. Nope. We were wrong. The reference was to brown sugar. Well, then I thought it must have been used in the early days of political correctness, perhaps the late 80’s or early 90’s. Wrong gain. The cookbook was published in 1978, before most people gave any thought to being “PC.”

Since this was during the era of the civil right movement, perhaps someone was trying hard not to offend. Personally, I think they missed the boat on this one because the descriptor led the users to the wrong interpretation. However, it does raise the issue of the importance of context. Try as we did, we could not discern what the author’s real reason for using the term might be. Without context, it is easy to judge and dismiss, instead of understand and value. How often do we hear someone not of a particular ethnic group dismiss the importance of the name desired by another group? I invite you to be the lamp lighter that enlightens those around you. The more we understand, the less often we will judge.

recipe-smallAs our society and workplaces continue to expand their diversity, more and more people want to be referred to by terms they have chosen rather than the labels selected by others. Sometimes the power of words is underestimated. Thus, one ill-chosen word can create friction. (For a full list of Words to Use versus Words to Lose refer to chapter 4 of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work.

Context makes all the difference in understanding. Many people of Latino heritage, for example, do not like the term Hispanic because it was a term formulated by the United States Census Bureau in 1970. When it was discovered that many U.S. households consisted of families who spoke Spanish, there had not previously been a way to recognize and record this phenomena. Rather than attempt to identify every country from which these residents’ ancestors might have come, the Census Bureau created the word Hispanic. Hispanic is not really an ethnic group. It is a generalized term used to describe a diverse group of people whose primary language is often Spanish. On the other hand, some people of Latino heritage prefer the term Hispanic because they believe it carries less bias than the words Mexican or Puerto Rican, for example.

Many Blacks prefers African American because the word black is rarely capitalized, even when it is specifically referring to that ethnic group (except within books written by African Americans and magazines targeting the African American culture), whereas African American does have the honor of capital letters. Some people believe the small case “b” is another example of subtle, institutionalized racism. African American is a term of pride. Unlike European Americans who can choose to recognize their Irish, German, or Italian heritage, African Americans do not have that option for recognizing their specific heritage. For many African Americans it is impossible to identify their ancestors’ country of origin. On the other hand, some Blacks do not like African American because they see themselves as American and not African since Africa is not a country; it is a continent. Each time I visit South Africa and other African countries to work with organizations there, I am acutely aware that I am American, even though I am proud of my African heritage.

One person can never know all of the right words to use. Diversity collisions abound among the best intentions. However, when a reference must be made, diversity learners ask people who are members of that group which term they prefer. The answers will vary. People have individual preferences, but your interest in asking questions will demonstrate your effort to show respect. Too often we assume, instead of asking, thus causing misunderstandings and conflicts. Perhaps a more effective way of referring to different ethnic groups is to place the word American in front of the ethnicity; for example, Americans of European heritage, Americans with Asian heritage, Americans with Latino heritage, and so on, following the model of people with disabilities.
Although using words and phrases that show respect and sensitivity requires effort, it really is not very difficult or time-consuming. Think about how you feel when someone uses what you perceive to be a derogatory term in reference to a group of which you belong.

The United States is a baby in historic terms. China’s first 500 or so years people did not call themselves Chinese. They identified with their heritage that helped form China. This is true even today, as people there refer to their regions to describe their identity with pride. As we become even more of a global village, take the time to learn the context of terms to help deepen your understanding.

Oh yeah, if you have ever heard of “colored sugar” referencing brown sugar in a recipe I would really love to hear from you!