Words That Hurt Underrepresented Communities

When are words considered harmful? Hear from Jared Blake, senior producer, “Velshi”; Sandra Lilley, NBC Latino managing editor; Nina Sen, director of News Standards – Race, Class, Gender and Raelyn Johnson, MSNBC executive managing producer, as they discuss their personal experiences with words, phrases or expressions that in certain contexts can be insulting or degrading to people of color. 

Watch the video above or read some of their remarks below. The text has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 


Words Hurt  

Jared Blake: Something that we’ve all learned in elementary school, words hurt. And I think if you’re not intending to offend somebody, why not take it off the table? Why not be aware of these things if you are not intending to hurt somebody’s feelings?  

Sandra Lilley: It’s naive to think that it doesn’t matter. It’s naive to think that a word is not used sometimes to try to dehumanize someone or make them look less than.   

Harmful Words to Avoid  

“You’re pretty for a brown girl” 

Nina Sen: Colorism is something that exists all over the world. “You’re pretty for a brown girl” or “you look better in this color” or “why’d you go get a tan on vacation?” — it still hits to the point that their whiteness is better than the other color. And it shows that you’re lesser.  

“Dot, not feather” 

Sen: It insults two communities. “What kind of Indian are you? The dot or the feather kind?” is really a cheap way to get to asking about someone’s race or ethnicity without having to have a conversation with them. 

“The barrio” 

Lilley: If someone meets someone who’s Latino and asks, “Are you from the barrio?”, it can have a pejorative meaning. Does it immediately signify that you come from a place that’s more ethnic or less educated?

“Ghetto”

Blake: It’s an adjective used to describe something that is of lesser worth about you. It’s another word that has racial connotations that just does not need to be said.

“Illegal”  

Lilley: If someone is not authorized to be in the US because they don’t have legal papers, that’s a very different way of talking about a person than just calling someone “an illegal.” The first thing that you think about when you see this human being is not that they are a human being, but their status, because of a piece of paper.

“Gung Ho”

Sen: It used to mean a sort of [Chinese] cooperative. Now it means someone who’s overeager to the point of being naive or jumping into something without any direction or clue.  

“Angry” 

Raelyn Johnson: I think people don’t realize how strong the word “angry” is. When you attach it to a woman, or a black woman specifically, it has a whole other depth of meaning. It is saying: “No, don’t be passionate.” “No, don’t be excited.” “Don’t be concerned.” There are just some words like “angry” that are not going to be attached to my white female counterpart. 

“Well-spoken” and “Articulate” 

Blake: I feel like when it’s applied to certain people, it’s generally applied to minorities. it sounds as though you are saying, “This person shouldn’t speak well, but to my surprise, they do.” 

Johnson: When you use the word “articulate,” you’re automatically saying the opposite – that you were guessing or assuming a different person will present to you. It’s like this idea of the black unicorn – “Whoa, you’re diverse and smart, great schools. How could this be?” – when there are a lot of people like that who live in this country.  

Recognize your biases 

Sen: It may seem silly to a lot of people. And I think it’s because a lot of these words have gone unchallenged for generations. Recognizing our biases and our unconscious biases is a way to bring us together and build a more harmonious society.   

Johnson: No one’s asking for even a whitewashing of some of the dialogue that we use. We’re asking people to be open to understanding the origin of that word and why that might be inappropriate. No one’s looking for mass cancel culture, but we want to cancel our ignorance.