Anti-racist Word Finder

A dialogue on language for a more inclusive society

Photo: SolStock/Getty Images

I grew up in Seattle — on traditional Coast Salish land — in the ’60s and ’70s. As a child, I didn’t truly understand the counterculture protests and the civil rights movement. Still, I saw that music, fashion, and hairstyles were changing — and with them, attitudes.

I was — and still am — a White, privileged middle-class kid who lived in a predominantly White, privileged middle-class neighborhood. My day-to-day adventures were relatively unrestricted, as my parents deemed it “safe” within the confines of our more massive arterial city block to visit any of my friends who lived within the same radius. But only one close friend lived inside the border: Chris, a White, privileged, middle-class kid like me.

To visit my other two close friends, Kenji (whose parents were from Japan) and David (the son of two Black engineers), my parents had to drive me to their homes. We played, ate each other’s family dishes, and had sleepovers. But things got weird at school and birthday parties; I noticed several off-color comments, mostly from teachers and parents.

One day, all three of us hung out at Chris’ house. Over lunch, his parents asked Kenji if he had “learned any foreign languages, like Japanese.” I watched his face tense and relax as he politely replied, “I know a few words, but since I was born here, I really only speak English.”

At 10 years old, I knew that there was a nuance in the question I didn’t understand. I asked Kenji about it later. His answer was simple and memorable: “Japanese isn’t a foreign language; it’s another language.”

I heard it: The word “foreign” meant you were an outsider, not one of us, untrusted. Even today, the term is used negatively: How antibodies detect “foreign invaders,” how governments treat “foreign workers,” and how Canada feels “foreign yet familiar.”

Language constantly changes. And while words have the power to represent the tremendous diversity of our society, even commonly used words can cause confusion and controversy. As recent ad campaigns for Black Lives Matter show, language can be deliberately used to engage and support communities or inflame and divide them.

To this point, an agreed-upon list of racially divisive words with substitutions is nearly impossible to find (except in memes). Online thesauruses don’t have racially sensitive options (yet). While I’m no expert in race relations, I decided to push my comfort zone, spark a conversation about antiracist words, and see where it went.

My modest attempt — an Antiracist Word Finder, shared for anyone to comment — is intended to surface how racism is embedded in everyday English-speaking life. I definitely need contributions, critiques, and clarifications from readers closer to the issues than I ever can be.

This is not a definitive guide (how could it be?), but perhaps it can begin an exchange of ideas to achieve some shared understanding about our word choices and the quality of dialogue on race.

Antiracist Word Finder — The Short List

  • Avoid: “blacklist” / “whitelist” (as in data security)
    Use: “blocklist” / “allow list”
    Rationale: Linked to European duality of good and evil. While some consider the terms race-neutral, tech companies plan to phase them out.
  • Avoid: “exotic” (as an adjective)
    Use: words that compliment a person’s style
    Rationale: Often couched as a compliment for how someone looks “beautifully different,” it is xenophilia (a love of the foreign) and objectifies mixed-race people.
  • Avoid: “foreign” (as in culture)
    Use “another,” as in another language or country
    Rationale: There’s no such thing as a “foreign” culture within a global, international perspective.
  • Avoid: “illegal alien”
    Use: “undocumented immigrant”
    Rationale: Unfortunately, many vulnerable people are displaced, exploited, and forced to flee their home countries to seek asylum or find work. Follow the UN’s direction and welcome them.
  • Avoid:minority” (as in people of color)
    Use “BIPOC” or specific group identity
  • Rationale: The term generally refers to “non-white” people, not a “visible minority.” While the term ‘people of color” still compares skin color to “white,” BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) builds solidarity and aims to advance racial justice.

The Long List (link to Google Docs): Antiracist Word Finder

I write about how small achievable changes to everyday habits can have bigger global impact.

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