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In a continuation of the “Say This Instead” series, let’s look at the pervasive symbolism of “white” as positive and “black” as negative in the English language. Words like “blackmail” (related to extortion), “blackball” (rejection), “blacklist” (banishment), and “black market” (illicitness) are so woven into the fabric of our language that we often don’t reflect on their racist overtones. The meaning of these phrases is always something undesirable. It perpetuates a systemic stigma caused by using the same terms that describe the color of our skin as a delineation between good and bad.  Based on our use of these words, “black” is bad and “white” is good. 

A study of the use the terminology found that it not only reflects racist culture but also serves to reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate it.  The study also noted that the word “Whiteness” has 134 synonyms in English, 44 of which are favorable and only ten which appear to have mild negative implications.  The word “Blackness” has 120 synonyms, 60 of which are distinctly unfavorable, and none of which are positive.

So why should we reconsider this use of the words “black” and “white” in our language?  Regardless of political leanings or ancestry, there is no benefit to creating dissonance between our colleagues and ourselves.  The negative impacts are recognized from the publishing field to the psychotherapy community.

As a Black therapist who is aware of the pervasive power of language, Dee Watt’s-Jones highlights the negative impacts of these terms in everyday language that reminds Black people of the negative associations of Blackness. Watts-Jones emphasizes the importance of speaking up in the face of values and practices that oppress.

Casting aspersions on Black or darkness while praising White or light isn’t universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user these expressions, such usage colludes with racism. Words can injure, even if the wound isn’t immediately evident.

Dee Watts-Jones

What To Say Instead

Racism shows up in many everyday expressions, and it’s time to reflect on moving forward now that we are more enlightened. Instead of glossing over them, stop and reflect on the potential impact. Then consider other words you can use as a replacement.  For example, Maven, the project management company, opted to use the phrase blocklist, instead of blacklist and allowlist, instead of whitelist.  Also, with Grammarly, users are encouraged to replace the word blacklist with blocklist or denylist because “the term blacklist may be considered outdated or not inclusive.”

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile