As communicators, our words matter. We’re tasked with crafting messages that resonate with people of all backgrounds — and providing inclusive communications is critical to moving our country forward in a positive way.
At FrazierHeiby, we listen first, then act. And I’ve spent the last few months doing just that — listening to the Black community and people who are sharing their firsthand experiences, providing much-needed perspective and teaching everyone who will listen how to be a better ally.
As a white woman, I’m not the authority on communicating about race. So I began by looking to some of my favorite local Black influencers, like Columbus’ City Council President Shannon Hardin and Columbus-based fashion maven Candace Read. Over time, I’ve intentionally diversified by feed and found new and powerful voices like New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and screenwriter Camilla Blackett (hello, New Girl!). For me, social media has always been a fun way to connect with others, but now, it also serves as an incredible tool that’s introduced me to new perspectives and Black voices.
Throughout my time listening, I’ve learned how to better communicate about race, racism and other diversity topics. And while I’m nowhere near finished learning, here are some important language considerations I’ve picked up to be a more intentional and inclusive communicator.
“Black” and “African American” mean two different things. Many individuals lean on “African American,” because they think it’s politically correct. Spoiler alert: It’s not. It’s imprecise and oftentimes inaccurate, especially when you don’t know someone’s ethnic background.
If you’re unsure of someone’s background, start with “Black.” It’s an all-inclusive term that carries weight of identity and culture, and shouldn’t have any negative bias — if you’re afraid to call someone Black, consider how you internally view the word, and in turn, Black people.
“African American” refers to someone’s family lineage. If you know that someone’s ancestors were enslaved in the U.S., either “Black” or “African American” is appropriate. If you know that someone’s family came from a certain country, you can use “Black” or “[country] American.” Examples of this include “Nigerian American” or “Jamacian American.” Remember that if someone’s family is from somewhere other than Africa, they’re not African American.
Glo Atanmo’s Instagram post explains this concept further from her own point of view.
In case you missed it, AP Stylebook and The New York Times just announced that you should capitalize “Black” in a racial, cultural or ethnic context. When lowercase, black is just a color. But with a capital B, Black encompasses a specific culture and community of people.
Referring to people as “slaves” is reductive and inhumane. Our words are powerful, and we can use more appropriate and representative language to describe the people who bore the brunt of a horrific time in our history.
Choose to use “enslaved” as an adjective, and mention enslaved people by name whenever possible. When speaking about individuals who claimed people as property, choose to use words like “enslaver” rather than “slave owner,” “slaveholder” or “master.”
For more language considerations surrounding slavery, refer to this Instagram post by The Conscious Kid.
As professional communicators, our work must be intentional, well-researched and inclusive to all. We must continually learn, listen and work toward allyship to move the needle in the right direction. For additional resources, this blog post highlights books, movies, podcasts and more that can help you start to listen and learn.