By its nature, an idiom tends to obscure its literal meaning – that’s part of its creative power. But that power also allows some idioms to carry racist undertones into our writing – even if the writer doesn’t intend it and many readers don’t notice. Apparently benign, these turns of phrase are absorbed in daily language, used over and over in a way that normalises and internalises the racism they emerged from.
At a time when many are actively looking for ways to take a stand against racism, careful choice of language – taking special care to eliminate harmful language – is one way to make a difference.
“Every use of language is an act, and those acts build into our general understanding …every time somebody makes an effort to move away from this kind of language, that it does matter, it’s not an empty gesture.”
Kelly E. Wright, a PhD candidate studying how the structure of society affects language use, in an interview for TODAY.com
Over the years, many terms and phrases have dropped out of accepted usage as society has come to realise their harmful meaning or intent. In this sense, a mindful approach to language choice is not new, or radical, or oversensitive, or a sign of unchecked ‘political correctness’. What is relatively new is how easy it is to avoid a potential misstep – and potential harm. These days, there is no excuse for not ‘looking before you leap’.
Thanks to search engines like Google and Bing, it doesn’t even take an expert etymologist to check the meaning of a potentially loaded idiom; anyone with an internet connection can quickly check where a phrase (like ‘look before you leap’) originated and how it came into wider use.
What to watch out for
The following (far from exhaustive) list illustrates how deeply these racially insensitive idioms and terms have infiltrated our day-to-day language.
- ‘No can do’ and ‘long time no see’ were originally used to ridicule Asian immigrants who didn’t speak English fluently. It’s all too easy to drop these phrases into everyday communications — and just as easy not to. Just say ‘I can’t do that’ and ‘Haven’t seen you in ages!’
- A ‘cakewalk’ was originally a competition for enslaved people on American plantations – the plantation owner would award the winner with cake for their performance. ‘It was incredibly easy’ says the same thing as ‘It was a cakewalk’ without evoking scenes of historical slavery.
- The concept of ‘grandfathering’ or a ‘grandfather clause’ is often used when new policies or laws do not apply retroactively. (An existing building may not be expected to comply with certain environmental standards that apply to all new builds, for example.) The original ‘grandfather clause’ in late 1800s America only allowed people to register to vote if they could prove they had previously been eligible or were descended from an eligible voter – automatically excluding Black voters. If you need to say that a new policy or approach will only apply going forward – or that an existing policy or approach will continue to apply for an existing group – be clear and literal about it. This also avoids any uncertainty among readers who may not know or understand the practical effect of the term ‘grandfathering’.
- The word ‘bulldozer’ emerged from the violent practice of ‘bull dosing’ Black voters in 1876 America. Consider using ‘earth mover’ or ‘digger’ when referring to the machine itself, and more direct language for the verb (‘pushed aside’ or ‘cleared’ instead of ‘bulldozed’).
- ‘Tipping point’ may have had innocent origins – referring literally to the point at which gravity would cause something to tip over – but it didn’t become a household phrase until the late 1950s, used to describe the point at which white residents felt a neighbourhood had become ‘too Black’. ‘Turning point’ or ‘inflection point’ serve the same purpose, without invoking or condoning racist biases.
- The word ‘thug’ is often used to perpetuate racist stereotypes of violence and lawlessness, particularly when referring to Black men. If you really must refer to a person or people with the sort of language that highlights their criminality or violence, pick a synonym – there are many.
- Many figurative terms present black as bad and white as good. For example, try to avoid ‘black mark’ (try ‘blemish’), blacklist (‘exclusion list’ for the noun, ‘deny’ for the verb) and ‘whitelist’ (‘safe list’ for the noun, ‘approve’ for the verb).
Consider all audiences
In addition to perpetuating racist stereotypes, writing that is loaded with idioms and figurative turns of phrase can be unclear to readers who are less familiar with English (or the language you’re writing in). It’s also disruptive if your copy will be translated into other languages where those idioms don’t exist. A human translator or localiser will be trained to handle these intricacies, but it does require extra effort. An AI-based or automated translator may not recognise the idiom at all, delivering a literal translation that completely misses the original meaning.
Rethink your rulebook
We’re not suggesting you discard idioms and well-known turns of phrase altogether. After all, these are powerful tools for adding dynamism, familiarity and humanity to your writing. All we suggest is that you think before you speak and do a quick internet search before you write.
Some of our clients are beginning to incorporate inclusive language guidance – including tips for avoiding racist stereotypes – in their in-house style guides. If you’re thinking of doing likewise, we’re always here to help.
- How to embrace diversity in your professional communications
- NPR’s Code Switch podcast
- The Diversity Style Guide – and the excellent list of resources that have informed its contents
- The Everyday Language of White Racism by Jane H. Hill (Wiley, 2008)
- Authoritative news sources – like Sunshine Coast Daily, CNN and HuffPost – have summarised some other idioms to avoid
- Search is your friend!