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Last September, sitting in a meeting room with my colleagues, a consultant described himself as a “slave driver.” A few weeks later, on a Zoom call, I heard a CEO talking about the work a company was doing in “Colombia, India, and Africa.” The former makes light of the horrific experience of slavery while the latter’s mention of Africa lumps together an entire continent and all the people on it. No harm was meant in either instance, but that doesn’t make the language any less damaging.
As a young woman of color, I’m often asked where my family is from (code for “why are you brown?”) or told how lucky I am not to have to wear sunscreen. Research shows that these types of micro-aggressions add up, taking their toll on the health of minorities by sending the message that they don’t belong.
Our daily lexicon includes dozens of common words and phrases that draw from a nasty history, perpetuate stereotypes and white supremacy, and demean others. The following list isn’t exhaustive, but reflects language commonly used in outdoor industry offices, job postings, and trade show aisles. Some might dismiss it as wokeness run amok, but there shouldn’t be anything political about speaking with respect.
Crazy or hysterical
The words here aren’t the issue. It’s how we deploy them in oppressive ways, like when describing women who challenge authority.
Drink the Kool-Aid
We all want devoted employees and customers, but this phrase makes light of the Jonestown massacre, which left 918 people dead from cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Handicapped, emotionally crippled, or lame
These terms perpetuate ableism, the social prejudice that people with disabilities are inferior.
Long time, no see
This phrase originated as a mockery of Native American’s broken English. Similarly, “no can do” mocked Chinese immigrants.
Low on the totem pole
A totem pole is a sacred cultural artifact; this phrase belittles it. Ditto with “spirit animal.”
We see this one mostly in job descriptions. Like “guru,” the word is culturally appropriated and it’s gendered as masculine, which can discourage female applicants.
A sexy new product
Let’s keep sex out of the workplace—and not tie something’s inherent value to its attractiveness.
This term stems from the section in vaudeville-era theaters where Black patrons were forced to sit.
This is a racist term, historically used in the South to describe Black people who didn’t know their place.
They ski in jeans
Skiing has a bad rep for being white and elitist. This phrase doesn’t help.
Sold down the river
Like “slave driver,” this is a reference to the slave trade.
Originally translated as “woman” in the Indigenous Algonquian language, today the “S-word” is an ethnic and sexual slur.
Often used as a cutesy way to describe like-minded people, “tribe” has colonial origins as a bureaucratic term forced on Native Americans and incorrectly applied to many Africans
Positing men as the status quo excludes women and non-binary folks.
You look so young
This micro-aggression glorifies youth and perpetuates ageism.
You’re so articulate
This implies that the speaker is surprised by someone’s ability (often a woman or person of color) to speak well.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.