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OHR/ORE Guide to Inclusive Language: Race and Ethnicity

Words Matter: A Guide to Inclusive Language around Racial and Ethnic Identity

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The D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) and the Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity (ORE) worked together to publish this guide to serve as an educational resource for District employees and for the public as they begin to engage more regularly in conversations about race, ethnicity,and racial and ethnic equity in the workplace and in our communities. Our goal is to raise awareness, guide learning, and encourage language that centers on inclusion by being mindful of the voices and experiences of people who have been historically marginalized.

Since this guide is provided for educational purposes only, it should not be construed as legal advice or as a mandate. Rather, it should be viewed as an invitation to use language that strives not to harm, demean, offend, or oppress individuals or groups.

Before diving into specific terms to be conscious of using, we must first establish how words and language can intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate racism. Racism is often thought of as just the individual acts that are committed by unkind people, however, racism is a systemic problem—in other words, it is embedded into our society. As a result it can manifest and be communicated in a variety of ways, such as our interactions with others (interpersonal or interactional racism), through representations in the media and popular culture (representational racism), and through our policies and laws (institutional racism).

This guide deals with only one of these forms of racism—racism in language, which is referred to as discursive racism. It is the form of racism that uses words that are rooted in stereotypical meaning, and typically includes racially tinged forms of everyday communication that sustain racism. While some words may appear innocuous, they may be linked to harmful histories and can negatively impact a person’s psychological well-being. Part of the reason that discursive racism appears innocuous or racially neutral is that much of it is not overt or easily identifiable like racial epithets or slurs. For this reason, although, a word or phrase may not be personally offensive to you or seem to be racist, it may be seen that way to others because of the word or phrase’s connotations or histories.