Please don’t say I’m ‘wheelchair-bound’ or even worse, ‘confined to a wheelchair.’  — Rolf Hotchkiss

 Are you tired of political correctness and wonder why it is suggested that language should become more sensitive? As 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, loss of jobs, and even millions of dollars- evidence Don Sterling of the Clippers, and Paula Dean.

There are times when ill-chosen words in fact reflect the racism, sexism, homophobia and other isms of the person speaking the words. Many times however, the offender just did not know any better, due to influences of their inner circle and culture.

So why are some people so offended by certain terms? There are many reasons, and most are imbedded in the history of power and disenfranchisement. Many people with 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 realized that many U.S. households consisted of families who spoke Spanish, there had not previously been a way to record this dynamic. 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 prefer 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, magazines targeting the African American culture or publications that focus on diversity), whereas African American does have the honor of capital letters just as other ethnicities and nationalities do. Some people believe the small case “b” is another example of subtle, institutionalized racism, while African American is a term of pride. Unlike European Americans/Caucasians who can choose to recognize their Irish, German, or Italian heritage, African Americans do not easily have the option to recognize 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 to work with organizations there, I am acutely aware that I am American, even though I am proud of my African heritage.

Another tough category to figure out is gender. Some women like being referred to as “ladies, gals or girls” while others are offended.  Although you will never get that one totally right every time, you can show your gender sensitivity in other ways by using terms like police officer, firefighter, and postal carrier when appropriate. Ask your colleagues for other inclusive gender language.

RVSo what can you do about this confusing dilemma? One person can never know all of the right words to use. When a reference must be made, ask people who are members of that group which term they prefer. The answers will vary. People have individual preferences, but your interest by asking questions will demonstrate your effort to show respect. Too often we assume, or are too afraid we will offend by just asking, thus causing misunderstandings and multicultural mishaps. In other cases, it is easier to tell yourself they should just get over it! No one is being hurt by team names like the Redskins or recreational vehicles called Winnebagos , right?

The use of specific derogatory terms by a group that aren’t acceptable coming from Rapanother group has become a big issue. The use of the “N” word, as used by rap and hip hop artists and now youth in general across the country is one such example. When Black kids call each other this, it’s fine (to some); they say they are reclaiming the word to take away the pain of past use of it. But when a White person says it, they are called racist. This is confusing to those not in the group, and it perpetuates inappropriate behavior.

In some cases, 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.

Although using words and phrases that show respect and sensitivity require effort, it really is not very difficult or time-consuming. Recognize that you will never make 100% of your colleagues happy. Pick a few words/phrases that you are willing to change, thus showing your desire to connect with and respect others who differ from you.

Since “appropriate” words change all the time, try the following suggestions:

  • Ask several people within the same cultural group which terms they prefer.
  • Omit slang terms when referring to others.
  • Speak up when others in your inner circle use derogatory language, and ask them to speak up if you slip too.
  • Do not use derogatory terms to describe others even if people within the cultural group do. For example, if a Jewish person tells a joke about Jews that is not permission for others not in the group to do the same.
  • Refrain from joking about a person’s bald head, size, or lack of height. Even if they politely laugh, it does not mean they think it is funny.
  • Click here for a list of words that offend and alternatives to them, then work on two or three with your team.

Lighten up, and show respect at the same time. Be willing to say, “I’m sorry,” or “I didn’t mean to offend; help me learn the right terms.” Most people will recognize your sincerity and your intent, if it is truly present. And remember, some people are just looking for a reason to be mad. Ignore those folks and focus on the majority who do want to create a space for understanding.