Language is one of the most powerful tools an individual possesses—it is essential in connecting with and learning about each other. However, when language causes harm to certain individuals or communities, it fosters an environment of non-acceptance and discrimination.
Despite noticeable efforts to do away with implicit racist language, some people continue to use common terms and phrases without realizing the inherent racism in them. Activists and educators create awareness of such terms and encourage parents to teach children the implicit racist connotations in everyday language. According to Nikki Tennermann, administrative director of the Office of Health Equity and Inclusion at Boston Children’s Hospital, children who hear offensive terms directed at them or their family members develop negative internalized feelings (toward themselves), impacting their identity development.
Below is a list of common American English terms that are normalized in everyday usage, but extremely harmful and insulting to marginalized communities. It’s imperative that we understand the negative impact of these words and their history, especially when inculcating language development in children.
- Powwow: Considered an offensive appropriation of a culturally important term in Indigenous communities.
- Master bedroom: The word “master” has problematic ties with slavery as it implies ownership and existence of “enslaved people’s quarters.”
- Blacklist/Blacklisted: Terms that imply Black is bad in comparison to the “whitelist” of accepted terms.
- Urban: In references to literature and music, this term reinforces negative stereotypes and marginalizes Black artists.
- Thug: Although the Indian origin word “ruffian” means thief, in the US, this term is a nominally “polite” way of using the N-word.
- Uppity: According to The Atlantic, this is a term racist Southerners used to describe Black people, especially Black women, who “didn’t know their place.”
- Spirit animal: Similar to “powwow,” this term also appropriates Indigenous cultures and puts forth misconceptions about their sacred beliefs.
- Long time, no see: Although NPR says this as an accepted form of American slang, some believe it mocks people of Asian descent who speak with broken English.
- Tribe: When a non-Indigenous person uses “tribe,” it erases the significance of Tribal sovereignty and identity.
- Eskimo: A derogatory term used by colonizers that contains racist connotations of barbarism.
Many parents and caregivers now take initiative to speak with their children about racism and discrimination in language. Although these conversations are not easy to navigate, they foster a sense of understanding and empathy in young children. Moreover, they are the first step toward building an anti-racist household.
How can I teach my child to identify and deal with racial/ethnic slurs?
Here are some strategies you can use to facilitate a conversation with your preschooler/toddler. To engage with your child at an earlier age, refer to the resources at the end!
- Address the situation immediately: If your child says something hurtful or disrespectful, be swift and firm in your response. Let them know that it is harmful to the other person or community. Use phrases like “It is not okay to use that term. It is inappropriate and unkind.”
- Explain the origin of the word(s): Do not downplay the racism and use age-appropriate descriptions. For instance: “Their feelings are hurt because it is not the right way to describe them.” You can also explain how the term(s) is/are racist and teach your child the appropriate words. “We do not use the word ‘Eskimo. The correct word is Inuit.”
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings: If your child is a target of any slur, comfort and acknowledge their feelings. “I know it made you angry when they called you that name. It’s okay to feel angry about that.”
- Start an open dialogue: You can also ask questions like “Why do you think they said that?” Reaffirm their identity by saying, “We are proud of our heritage. Even if people say such things, it doesn’t affect who we are.”
- Engage in positive media: Read and watch positive portrayals of different communities. To counter negative media stereotypes, expose your child to stories, books, films, etc. that accurately represent diverse racial and ethnic groups. For example, the film Zootopia explores stereotypes among animal groups, which is a great way of teaching children the impact of prejudices and false perceptions.
- Understand your own biases: Acknowledge your own implicit bias(es) and make a conscious effort to be a role model for your child. If your child observes you making an effort, they are likely to follow suit. Have regular conversations about racism and bigotry to develop an anti-racist environment.
These are just some of the ways you can teach your child about bias-free language. Consult the following resources for more information on ways to talk to your child about racial bias.
- How to Start and Continue Talking to Kids about Race
- Talking to Children about Racial Bias
- Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race
- Six Ways to Help Your Child Cope with Racism