Last Updated on September 2, 2022 by Allen Stafford

The Limits of Language in Describing People without Racial and Ethnic Bias

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The Limits of Language in Describing People

Despite being a useful tool, language limits us when it comes to describing people. That is, language is rife with bias, which can cause communication issues in your personal and business interactions. Take, for example, the manner in which we describe racial and ethnic groups. We use words such as black, white, and brown to represent a person’s race or ethnicity. These terms are inadequate for describing the wealth of diversity within each ethnic group. Additionally, labeling people can be misleading and divisive.

The goal of this article is to help you better understand how bias plays a role in describing people. What I do not cover in this post are lists of adjectives used to describe people. There are plenty of posts online that cover that topic. It is my intention to bring awareness to how language limits communication when describing people. I also offer several ways to avoid bias when addressing a person’s race or ethnicity. While the list is not conclusive, it covers the common ways in which we may communicate our bias when describing a person’s race or ethnicity.

Race is More Than A Color

Pause for a moment and reflect on the implications that are attached to the color words? We often associate white with purity, peacefulness, and virtue. Black, we associate with negative feelings like sadness, fear, and death. What comes to mind when you hear the words black sheep or black mark? Chances are, you associate the phrases with negativity. After all, what is a black sheep? It’s a person who is a disfavored or disreputable member of their family or group. A black mark is a disfavored notation, often on a person’s reputation or personnel file.

Let’s talk about the color brown. In the article on Junkee.com titled, “Thanks For Ruining Everything For Brown People, Aziz” (a reference to the comedian, Aziz Ansari) discusses how few “brown” people are at the top of the A-List in Hollywood and how Ansari allegedly ruined that reputation engaging in an alleged sexual misconduct. The problem with the story is not the allegation of misconduct, but that of referring to Ansari as a brown person.

People from various regions in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East identify with the color brown, yet the range of skin tones varies from dark to pale. Thus, brown is not only a biased way of describing a person from one of the mentioned regions, it is not an accurate depiction. Advocates have worked to abolish the color words, specifically the phrase, people of color, because using color to describe race is divisive, and that race is more than just a color.

Using Qualifiers Regarding Ethnic Groups

Besides the use of color words to describe racial and ethnic groups, we often use qualifiers when communicating about various ethnic groups that are American. For example, the terms Asian American, Arab American, and Latinx American signify the diversity that exists in the American population. The challenge with qualifiers when describing ethnic American groups is that somehow these groups are not authentically American as compared to Non-Latinx white people, which are simply known as Americans.

Qualifiers may seem like a standard part of communication, but we have observed that they can isolate an ethnic group by suggesting that they are less American than whites. Such assumptions can lead to biased language in the workplace, which comes with its own challenges.

How to Avoid Racial and Ethnic Biased Language in Business Communication

Communicating with coworkers, customers, and vendors in a non-biased manner is essential to business success. Avoiding such issues helps maintain a healthy brand image, while avoiding unnecessary costs caused by biased language. Avoiding communication issues helps contribute to an inclusive, positive working environment which is healthy for a business’s survival.

The following guidelines are suggestions for how to reduce the chance of biased communication when communicating to describe people of various races and ethnicities. The list is not a conclusive, but a selection of some of the notable ways to improve your communication about the topic.

  1. Do not identify people by race or ethnicity.

Don’t identify people by their race or ethnic group if it isn’t relevant. Typically, we do not call out when someone is white or has Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Apply the same rule toward people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Example:

InappropriateAppropriate
Marcus Smith, the black senator of California, cast his vote.Marcus Smith, the California Senator, cast his vote.
Sue Jones, an Asian professor of English, has been promoted to Dean.Sue Jones, a professor of English, has been promoted to Dean.
Martin’s, the Hispanic owned restaurant, wants to offer delivery services.Martin’s, the restaurant, wants to offer delivery services.

  1. Avoid terms that deem non-white cultures inferior.

Avoid using the term non-white. This term establishes the white culture as the standard for all other cultures. Additional terms to avoid include culturally disadvantaged and culturally deprived. They imply that the dominant culture is superior. Furthermore, they may imply that the other groups lack culture.

  1. Refer to individuals as ”members of a minority group.”

When referring to minority individuals, refer to them as “members of a minority group or specify the minority group (e.g. African American).

Example:

InappropriateAppropriate
Women and minorities are part of the application process.Women and members of minority groups are part of the application process.
Minorities often visit the museum.Members of the Asian and Latin communities visit the museum.

  1. Avoid stereotypes that people of a particular race are all the same.

Avoid words, images or situations that reinforce stereotypes implying all people of a particular race or ethnic group are similar.

ExampleThe Problem
It was no surprise that the Asian-American students achieved the highest score in the science contest.Assuming that it is relevant to point out this group excelled, the phrase “it was no surprise,” may reinforce the stereotype that all Asian-Americans have superior ability in science.

  1. Don’t make religious assumptions.

Be sensitive to religion when referring to various ethnic groups. Do not make assumptions that all members of a nationality follow the same religion. For example, not all Arabs are Muslims. The same holds true for other nationalities and ethnicities. 

describing people without race and ethnic bias - group of diverse students

Group of ethnically diverse teens as an example of including a diverse group of people in photos when creating marketing or other visual material.

They will embody various religious beliefs and practices. Avoid stereotyping a race, nationality, or ethnic group with a specific religion.

  1. Include a variety of ethnicities in graphics and photographs.

When using images, video, or graphics, make certain you have a variety of ethnicities represented. While this may not be the case for every situation, including a variety members from various ethnic groups will present a diverse representation of your illustration.

Final Thoughts

Communication — the words we speak — are mere symbols which we assign meaning to and accept that meaning as a collective group. It’s easy to tell someone to ignore any biased language directed at them. However, it is that same idea of defining words based on our own perceptions and emotions that make certain terms vulgar, sparking emotional reactions. In turn, the communicator bears the consequential burden of their message.

Because we perceive words based on our experiences, it is communications best practice to avoid using biased language when describing a person’s race or ethnicity. Avoiding biased terms avoids any potential misunderstanding by the receiver. It also avoids any potential repercussion for communications that occur within a business context.

Communication Activity: Race and Ethnic Biased Language Journal.

We often use biased language when describing people. For this communication activity, keep a journal for one week on how often you or someone else uses color words or other biased words from this article. Note the context in which the biased terms are used as well. After the week is over, determine whether or not the biased language regarding race or ethnicity added value to the conversation. If it does not add value, it may be inappropriate for business communication or the workplace.