#LanguageMatters: 5 Actions to Take as Allies

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Illustration of a person presenting a slide with the 5 tips in this article. People in meeting are clapping their hands.
Illustration of a person presenting a slide with the 5 tips in this article. People in meeting are clapping their hands.

1. Avoid phrases that diminish or disparage Indigenous people

On Monday, the US celebrated a federal holiday that’s a bit controversial. The original holiday was declared “Columbus Day,” in honor of the European explorer who landed on the shores of our country in 1492. However, many universities, cities, and states have moved to celebrate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” a holiday that celebrates the history and contributions of Native Americans — rather than Columbus. (Interestingly, both holidays appeared on my Google calendar.)

Unfortunately, there are all too many sayings that diminish or disparage the culture of Indigenous peoples. Examples include “hold a powwow,” “name your spirit animal,” “go off the reservation,” “lowest person on the totem pole,” “too many chiefs, not enough Indians,” and “Indian giver.”

Allies, let’s stay away from all of them. To understand more about why it matters, check out Use These Culturally Offensive Phrases, Questions at Your Own Risk from Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.

2. Mirror language used by a member of an underrepresented group

Being attuned to our own words — especially when we use names and terms to describe people from groups that we don’t belong to — is a crucial and complex part of being an ally. Recently, I’ve noticed an evolving conversation around the words used to describe non-white groups of people. Some like POC (People of Color). Some prefer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). I’ve also read posts by Black people whom I respect saying that they didn’t want this label to be applied to them. They were Black, not BIPOC. The conversation is nuanced and impassioned, but I don’t see much consensus. Which is understandable, since this is a matter that affects multiple, extremely varied populations, and affects them deeply.

What’s an ally to do? First up, in one-on-one conversations, pay attention to how an individual refers to themselves and mirror their language.

In group settings, we can refer to specific races where appropriate. I’ve started doing this in my speaking and writing. For example, I’ll say “Black people” when talking specifically about that demographic. If I need to refer to a more generalized group of people who aren’t white, I’ll use the phrase BIPOC in my writing, and say “Black, Indigenous, People of Color” when speaking (although there has been some pushback against this term, too).

My approach is informed (shout out to my friend Dr. Suzanne Wertheim and NPR’s Code Switch podcast) yet imperfect. I’ll continue to pay attention to how individuals refer to themselves and how I can be respectful with my language choices.

3. Say “sexual orientation” not “preference”

During this week’s US Supreme Court nomination hearings, Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Judge Amy Coney Barrett about several issues, including same-sex marriage. Judge Barrett remarked,

“I have not ever discriminated on the basis of sexual preference, nor would I ever discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”

In response, Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono said,

“Let me make clear, ‘sexual preference’ is an offensive and outdated term.”

GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) then tweeted:

“The correct term is sexual orientation. ‘Sexual preference’ is a term often used by anti-LGBTQ activists to imply that sexual orientation is a choice.”

Thank you, Sen. Hirono and GLAAD.

4. Retire one ableist phrase (or more) from your everyday language

Newsletter subscriber Matthew Cornale, a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, told me about a recent class discussion on the use of ableist language in everyday, casual conversations:

“What I took from this discussion is that there are a lot of seemingly innocent words which we use in everyday conversation that are microaggressions and actually perpetuate the systemic discrimination of people with disabilities. Though this language use is probably most often unintentional, (un)intention does not constitute an excuse.”

Once you become attuned to these words and phrases, you’ll notice them everywhere. For instance, in everyday conversation, having a “blind spot” tends to imply something negative. As in, if someone were better or more skilled, they wouldn’t have the blind spot. E.g., “You appear to have a blind spot to this emerging competitive threat.” Or “Because of your blind spot, you missed an opportunity.”

Matthew shared a website that has a list of ableist words and substitutes. Allies, let’s spend a few minutes reviewing the site and identify one ableist phrase (or more) to retire from our everyday language.

5. Clarify your pronouns

October 11 was National Coming Out Day. Leading up to it, one of my newsletter subscribers told me their company invited employees to share stories celebrating their “Coming Out” journey. Love it!

They also wanted something they could use to explain why sharing gender pronouns is important. I pointed them to this short video from my friend Jeannie Gainsburg, author of The Savvy Ally.

If you are a cisgendered ally, clarifying your pronouns is a simple but powerful act of support. Whether you do this verbally or in an email signature, on a nametag, or as part of your video conference profile, you are helping to normalize the practice of clarifying pronouns. This is helpful to genderfluid, transgender, and other non-binary folks, who get loads of pushback on the pronoun issue overall.

Finally, please don’t use the phrase “preferred pronouns.” (There’s that word again.) That makes it sound like using their pronouns is optional, which it’s not.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

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Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.

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