Use This Rubric for More Inclusive Language, and Other Actions for Allies

Person on a couch, reading, with a thought bubble: does it erase people? blithely references terrible history? demeans?
Image courtesy of black.illustrations, quote by Dr. Suzanne Wertheim

1. Apply this rubric to compound words with “black” in them

On Twitter, I got a question about using the term “blackout” to describe replacing media content (e.g., a local baseball game) with other content (e.g., a TV show). The goal is to encourage people to go to the stadium instead of staying at home. Was there a more inclusive alternative?

I pulled in my friend and linguistic anthropologist, Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, to get her expert opinion. She shared a simple rubric for thinking about compound words with “black” in them:

“At first glance, this doesn’t:
-erase people
-blithely reference terrible history

What a helpful approach to evaluate industry-standard terms and the everyday language we use.

2. Ask a “why” question when witnessing racism

In just the past week, I read three news stories of racism against Black people in the workplace:

Each one is a cautionary tale of how racism can show up in our workplaces. Allies, especially those of us who are white or white-passing, let’s reflect on what we would say if we witnessed any of these situations. Let’s think about how we could use our position of privilege to take action. How we could avoid being apathetic to, and therefore complicit in, the act of racism unfolding before us.

Looking for an idea? Ask a “why” question to surface the bias that might be at play. To the colleague in the mailroom, “Why do you think she doesn’t belong here?” To the security guard, “Why are you asking him to use the loading dock entrance?” To the flight attendant, “Why do you think she’s a kidnapper?”

3. Edit your job descriptions to attract more women candidates

A few days ago, I was speaking with a potential client who I quickly learned is an outstanding advocate for my work. He’s purchased copies of my books for his staff, talked about the Better Allies approach with their board of directors, and wants to bring me in as a guest speaker. Who doesn’t love a fan like this?!

But it gets even better.

During our call, he shared some great news. One of his colleagues had followed my guidance on how to write a more inclusive job description and saw immediate results. Almost half of the candidates who applied for an engineering role were women. This represented a substantial change from the typical demographics of their applicant pool.

While I’ve addressed how to write more inclusive job descriptions previous newsletters, I’ve got so much more to tell you. Check out The Better Allies™ Approach to Hiring. In this short guidebook, I share tips to attract job seekers from underrepresented groups and ensure the interviewing and onboarding processes are inclusive and equitable.

4. Use a transgender coworker’s current name

In her book The Savvy Ally, LGBTQ Educator Jeannie Gainsburg states what should be obvious: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to. Yet, for transgender people, there may be some nuances to keep in mind. As Jeannie writes,

“I have worked with many transgender coworkers. Some had legally changed their names and some had not. It did not matter to me as their coworker. I used their current name. I never asked what their name used to be or, even worse, what their “real” name was. (Hint: This is rude.)”

She goes on to advise avoiding any mental gymnastics as we talk about someone’s past and consider using their former name. Steer clear of, “Hey Alice, when you were Alfred, did you play on any sports teams?” Don’t out them or call attention to their past. Just stick to their current name.

If you find yourself thinking that’s easy enough, read on.

Some organizations that insist on using employees’ legal names on badges, email addresses, video conference accounts, and other internal systems. Yet, not all transgender people legally change their name. It can be expensive, it may require a judge’s approval (and not all judges support people transitioning to another gender), and it may require a notice to be published in a newspaper which might lead to safety concerns. So, if your company requires legal names to be used, please advocate for change. Ask if current names can be added to these systems and be displayed in place of legal names.

5. From the archives: Mind your adjectives

Now and then, someone shares an old Better Allies tweet. (Each time it happens, I’m so impressed by their memory and their search skills.) Last week it was Taison Bell, MD, who tweeted about a letter of recommendation they were writing:

“I’m writing a LoR for a trainee and remembered this awesome document from @uarizona that helps avoid #genderbias in writing letters of recommendation. It’s fantastic! I’m embarrassed I had a few L column words in there. So I’m bookmarking this tweet and pulling it up from now on.”

Curious about the tweet Dr. Bell bookmarked? Here you go:

“University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women reviewed research on how bias can creep into letters of reference. And came up with a one-page infographic of helpful tips.

We especially like the section on adjectives.”

list of adjectives to avoid/include when writing recommendation letters
Image by University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women

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

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

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