Addressing Common Terms Rooted in Black Oppression

Black History Month is a time to celebrate and honor the significant contributions Black people have made to society. It’s an opportunity to recognize the injustices that Black people have faced throughout history and to commit to creating a more equitable and inclusive future. What better place to start than the workplace?

Problematic words and phrases have made their way into our vocabulary, and some have become common business terms. These terms can reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate harmful biases, even when used unknowingly.

Did you know everyday phrases like “peanut gallery” or “cakewalk” are rooted in our history of enslavement and oppression? We should strive to use language that is more inclusive and respectful. Here we’ve outlined just a few problematic terms and their origins.

    • Whitelist/Blacklist, Whitehat/Blackhat,, etc: any language that reinforces the symbolism of white as pure and good, and black as dirty and bad, needs to be re-examined.
    • Peanut gallery: refers to the cheapest, worst seats in a theater, which were the only seats Black Americans were allowed to purchase in the early- to mid-1900s.
    • Master/Slave this coding term references a historical period where Black people were enslaved.
    • Cracking the whip: references a primary method of punishing and controlling enslaved peoples.
    • Cakewalk: refers to a dancing contest rooted in enslavement in the prewar South.
    • Sold down the river: during slavery in the US, slave owners would literally sell “misbehaving” enslaved people down the river to the harsher, Mississippi plantations.
    • Thug: this term is often used to label or portray Black men as violent, irrational, untrustworthy, or gang members.
    • Uppity: during Segregation racist southerners used “uppity” to describe Black people “who didn’t know their place.”
    • Slaving away: makes light of the very real history of Black enslavement.
    • Grandfathered in: the original grandfather clause was used in the American South to deny black people the right to vote.

Most of the people we work with are good people. We want to create inclusive workplaces, cultivate understanding and cultural curiosity, and avoid racially charged language. This Black History Month, consider going beyond the perfunctory social media post, and take action that can truly affect the hearts and minds of your employees. Take the time to provide your employees with practical tips on how to honor Black History Month, whether it be through education, amplifying Black voices, supporting Black businesses and charities, or changing their language to be more inclusive.

Check out Emtrain’s Microlesson Library for a host of lessons around elevating black voices, creating inclusive workplaces, and teaching cross-cultural communications. Our recently updated microlesson, Black History Month: Celebrating Achievements & Contributions of Black Americans, is designed to help employees understand the history and importance of this annual observance. Also see our new microlesson Black Resistance: Recognizing Black Resistance efforts throughout history, for a lesson on understanding and acknowledging Black Resistance’s efforts to create a more equitable society.

black history monthblack leadershipBlack Lives MatterMicroaggressionsmicrolesson
Lauren Wolf

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