The way we use words matters. From the words we speak to the words we write, words matter. Words can be powerful tools, but they can also be harmful when used to marginalize others.
When fostering an anti-racist culture, it’s important to model the environment you hope to create. That includes using language that enhances the lives of others and moving away from language and phrases that appropriate, exploit or shame people.
Intuit’s Content Systems Team and members from our Racial Equity Advancement Leadership (REAL) Team came together to document ways to eliminate racist language from our company as we continue our journey for a more equal world. While we’re actively working to build a more inclusive workplace, we also want to share our learnings along the way.
Here are some tangible ways that you can spot and remove hurtful language
People should always come first
Content should never hurt someone. Even if it’s not intentional, it’s critical that we’re aware of the impact our words may have on others and can actively learn from our mistakes.
The decision to lean into anti-racist language shouldn’t be purely intellectual. It should be done because it’s the right thing to do and because people matter.
Consider the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color
When basing decisions to use or not use words, empathize with communities that have experienced harm.
Try asking yourself if there are any groups of people who could be harmed by your language. Who and how so? Thinking about who is affected deepens your understanding of anti-racism.
If your company has employee resource groups (ERGs), this can be a great place to gain insight and information that can be used to eliminate harmful language. They can lay the foundation for a culture of diversity and inclusion, share valuable feedback and help break stereotypes while also helping to build understanding, empathy and capability for your employees and customers around the world.
If it’s harmful to one group, it’s harmful to all groups
Some people experience oppression in ways that others don’t. If any one group is harmed by a term or phrase, don’t use it.
Well-intentioned choices can still cause harm. It’s not up to us to judge if or how much a word harms, but to believe people who tell us it does. Choose the most inclusive language for positive impact.
If the language you’re using makes you uncomfortable in any way, even if you can’t quite articulate the reason, find an alternative way to articulate your thoughts.
Strive for content that’s clear, concise, and accurate
Many harmful terms are rooted in racism and anti-Blackness. They also don’t clearly convey the intended meaning of the word or phrase.
Have you ever used the word ‘grandfathered’ when describing in which an old rule continues to apply to an existing situation while a new rule will apply to future situations? Although your use of the term may be unintentional, the term itself is racist and unclear.
Instead, think about what a term actually means and describe that. Look for clearer words that are not only more inclusive, but are also easier to understand. For example, “grandfather clause” or being “grandfathered in” originally described policies that kept Black people from voting in the United States during the Jim Crow era. It’s an unclear term to begin with, and even more confusing to non-native English speakers. More accurate and concise alternatives could be legacy status, exemption, or exception.
Don’t use black, white, dark, or light as metaphors
Language that puts a positive connotation on white/light and a negative or mysterious one on black/dark reinforces anti-Black and colorist stereotypes. Choose more direct language to get your point across.
Have you ever used the phrase ‘black box’ to represent something that is confusing? If so, you’ve used a racist term that reinforces that something ‘black’ is considered inferior. Instead, try using a phrase that is more literal like ‘unclear’ to emphasize your point.
While this list is always evolving and by no means exhaustive, here are terms with racist roots that we’re moving away from at Intuit: black hat (hacking), blacklist, black box, dark UX, fieldworker, grandfathered, master, master/slave, redline, redlining, white glove, white hat (hacking), whitelist
Be inclusive of other cultures, but don’t appropriate them
Don’t use language that is appropriated from groups that experience oppression. Use language that speaks to everyone without taking away from underrepresented cultures.
You may be leveraging phrases from Indigenous communities and not realize that it’s appropriation. Examples include using ‘powwow’ to represent a meeting, ‘tribe’ to talk about a group of people or even ‘spirit animal’ when sharing a representation of what someone aspires to be. Many words and phrases like these and others have important meaning in Indigenous and other cultures, and should not be used in casual conversation.
In addition to the above examples, instead of using phrases from Black Vernacular English (BVE), find other ways to express your thoughts. From leveraging storytelling, to quotes and more, you can still paint a picture for your reader without using language that has been taken from historically oppressed people and cultures.
Ending systemic racism is challenging and it takes hard work.
At Intuit, diversity and inclusion isn’t just something we do — it’s part of who we are and is embedded into our company’s core values. We’re committed to doing even more to create a more inclusive world both within our company and beyond.
Our goal is to create a rising tide that will lift all boats, making Intuit a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for every employee to do the best work of their lives. This work goes beyond our four walls and we hope to inspire others so that we can collectively drive greater societal transformation.
There are no shortcuts to building an anti-racist culture. Engaging with anti-racist language often means using your own judgement, but it can be difficult to guide yourself through the decision-making process. While tools like this can help, remember that these are starting guidelines.
It’s up to all of us to challenge our thinking to make long-term changes. Together, we can make a difference in fighting for a more equal world.