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With associations starting to focus on updating their governance and policies as social injustice and racial inequities come to light, many needed changes are taking place. Unconscious bias training, pay equality, diversity of staff and leadership and open discussions have become the focus of many associations’ resolutions for the new year.

There is one more ticket item that many associations have overlooked during their efforts to become more inclusive and accepting: The power of the words we use. 

The English language is made up of stolen words and phrases from other cultures and communities, many times being based on traumatic and racist history. In order to truly succeed in creating a safe and welcoming environment for everyone, we need to change the way we speak. Start with these words and phrases traced back to the racism we are trying so hard to abolish.

1. Grandfathered In

As policies change and established members or leadership feel pushed out, some organizations feel the need to placate these people by allowing them to disregard or be exempt from new rules and regulations. While this may be fine for your organization, saying they were “grandfathered in” is not.

The term was first coined after the 15th Amendment was passed, prohibiting voting rights from being taken away on the basis of race. Many southern states were not happy about this, so they passed amendments requiring literacy tests for everyone trying to vote — unintentionally affecting poor, white illiterate men. To combat this, they created the grandfather clause. If your grandfather could vote, so could you. This largely impacted the black vote, allowing for racist practices and institutions to stay in power for decades to come.

While it may be commonplace to use phrases like this, continuing to use such loaded language perpetuates the systemic racism we are all trying to move past. Instead, try saying legacy clause instead of grandfather.

2. Blacklist

Probably the most commonly used phrase for many organizations and business professionals is blacklist. Despite its extreme frequency in common language to innocently list operations, organizations or people an organization would prefer not to work with, the history is much more sinister.

At the height of its usage, this term was meant to list individuals who were barred from entering establishments due to political differences, as punishment or for minor transgressions. Unfortunately, this shifted to becoming predominantly used as a way to keep black men and women from entering establishments.

“It is notable that the first recorded use of the term occurs at the time of mass enslavement and forced deportation of Africans to work in European-held colonies in the Americas,” published Frank Houghton and Sharon Houghton. “Such terminology not only reflects racist culture, but also serves to reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate it.”

For future use, organizations should look for other options such as redlist, blocklist or reject list.

3. Cakewalk

When describing a project you believe to be easy, don’t use the term “cakewalk.” Contrary to its common usage in everyday language, many people don’t actually know the origin of this word is based in racist history.

According to Black Then, a cakewalk was actually a public dance competition where slaves were dressed up and paraded about a room behaving erratically to “mock” their masters. Those masters would judge who had the best performance at the end, the winners taking home a large decorated cake.

“The cakewalk was a form of comical enjoyment; slave owners would gather their servants and slaves to see who had the best ‘slave walker’ at the end of it all,” they wrote.

Instead of using this phrase, scarred by the horrible history of slavery, try simply saying “this will be easy.”

Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for your organization starts with the language used on a daily basis. By avoiding these problematic terms, associations can do a better job of combating systemic racism.

Ashley Neal
Post by Ashley Neal
November 3, 2021
Ashley is a marketing and communications professional with expertise in sales conversion, copywriting, and social media.