Avoiding Stereotypes

By Catherine Osborn

It is easy to fall into the trap of using language that can be construed as racist or sexist. Here are a few tips to stay away from this type of writing.

  • Avoid sexist language. When you know your audience varies, stay away from words that are gender specific. Use “their” instead of “his” or “anyone” instead of “a man”. You’d be surprised how many people take these sorts of things the wrong way.
  • Avoid ethnic and racial stereotypes. You can be accurate without being biased. For example, it could be considered impolite to say Oriental; you should say Asian or better yet, the specific country such as Japanese, Korean, etc….
  • Be careful not to let religious stereotypes creep into your writing. Such as referring to a banker as “Jewish, of course”. This is too biased.
  • Biases against age and sexual orientation are also frowned upon. In all these cases, it is best to well, use your best judgment.
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21 Responses to “Avoiding Stereotypes”

  • Matt Jones

    So you’re saying to be 100% PC about everything and not to show any real views?

  • Claire

    Not necessarily but depending on the situation in which you are writing, it is best to bear these things in mind. For example, a college paper or a document for work ought to keep biases to a minimum.

  • Daniel

    Matt, I think that people often use these stereotypes without being aware.

    If you do want to express your thoughts using biased terms that is fine, as long as you are doing it deliberately.

    I remember that Guy Kawasaki used to mention in his bio that he learned “how to sell” from the Jews. That was enough to raise a big discussion around the issue and whether it was prejudice or not.

  • watershed

    Instead of thinking about this as “PC”, think about it in terms of avoiding assumptions in writing. Any kind of assumptions– e.g. that families are always heterosexual, that professors are white older men, or that elementary school teachers are women, that maids are African American etc.

    Granted I teach undergrads in sociology, but in general I think either assumptions about race/class/gender/religion should either be avoided, or examined. Of course examining why these assumptions exist is maybe only appropriate for a sociology paper, but it is good to keep in mind. Assumptions in writing, like passive voice, make writing seem weak.

  • Daniel

    Good point watershed.

  • Dave

    I think the most important point is that you should always write with the goal of getting your point across as clearly as possible. If you are writing with the purpose of expressing some ‘real view’, you should write to express that view as clearly as possible. On the other hand, if that is not your purpose, interjecting those views can be distracting or even offensive. Either way, it takes away from your point and makes your writing less effective.

  • Robert

    “Use your best judgement” Sometimes I think that good judgement is not a common attribute, but we can hope for the best!

  • Michael

    “. . . For example, it is now considered impolite to say Oriental; you should say Asian or better yet, the specific country such as Japanese, Korean. . .”

    I’m Vietnamese and I had no idea that saying oriental would offend Asians; even I use the word oriental. As far as I know, it would not offend me.

  • Claire

    According to what I have seen in most college handbooks this is the norm, Michael. Not everyone will be offended of course – which is what we all hope for! – but sometimes it is best to play it safe.

  • Daniel

    Michael, good to know that our audience is that broad 🙂 .

    Keep us updated on local variations!

  • Chris Vandeviver

    I’ve been debating this one for a while with myself- which is more offensive, black or African-American?

    I feel that using the term black is focusing strictly on color. African American is my preferred term, but I can imagine this can offend also.

  • Bill G

    I have to cast a vote against using “their” as the singular possessive. To me it still represents laziness, with the speaker or writer being unwilling to expend the energy to keep his sentence in order. If some are offended by the proper singular possessive, it is probably for the best.

  • Robert

    I found your post to be a stereotype to be avoided.

    A writer so concerned about possibly offending his audience is a writer who
    reveals he is not entirely forthcoming.

    Note my use of he as a generic pronoun.
    I could not care less if a reader is offended by proper English.

    And I used proper properly.

  • Daniel

    Robert, both he and she would be correct for your sentence. Upon what have you based your choice?

    I agree that for informal writing using a single form is probably simpler though.

  • Greg May

    Check out this post at Set in Style for an amusing post on how things can go awry when you try to use genderless pronouns:

  • Jeremy Dalton

    Personally, the word ‘oriental’ springs to mind exotic and cultural imagery of the East, and I believe this is the same for many others, including Asians (perhaps I shouldn’t have used that term for fear of offending someone).

    Robert brings up a very good point concerning the default use of ‘he’ as the anonymous pronoun. Some raise the point that this is unacceptable bias, but why can it not be seen as a simple rule of English grammar?

    I have seen the whole argument of PC spiral out of control when it is applied to words such as ‘short’. Is ‘short’ offensive to you? What about to your friends? Oh, then should we toss it aside in favour of ‘vertically challenged’ for them?

    Different audiences may call for different styles of writing, but the essence of a writer is that he conveys the message he wishes to convey, and should not be limited by political correctness.

    Obviously this is not free rein to start spouting obscenities at every race, gender and religion. As is mentioned, use your judgement, and if you have half a brain, and the foresight to research your target audience, you should be able to tell the difference between an insulting statement and a harmless one.

    My apologies for the long rant, but political correctness (when taken too far) annoys to me no end.

  • Jeremy Dalton

    And there goes the ol’ postwriting check…

    * annoys me to no end

    See what happens when I rant? 😀

  • Jamesha Walker

    Only PERVERTS play “politically correct”!

  • Helmut

    Oh, boy! …wait a minute… that’s not gender neutral…. Reading this post and the reactions to it is like opening a time capsule. It is now 2014 and I am pretty sure that using “their” as a PC ersatz for “his” is considered incorrect, as it is plural and “his” is not, etc., etc.

    Language is not neutral and I believe any attempts to make it so only serves to dilute its utility. Prior to any discussion on gender/race neutrality should be an understanding of the power of language. It is the most powerful tool known to man (oops!). Manipulation of language has led to some of history’s vilest atrocities. That includes the use of the masculine inclusive in the subjugation of women.

    In 1987 I wrote a university paper in which I used the feminine inclusive. Of course, I wrote a two page footnote explaining my choice. It was striking how jarring it was reading something written in the feminine inclusive. It was jarring to me and I wrote it! The use of the masculine inclusive is not striking because we are numb to its effect out of habit.

    This discussion can go on forever. Suffice to say that, given the opportunity, we should not shy away from using language as the powerful tool that it is. Use the feminine inclusive when possible (with or without an explanation), or mix the masculine and feminine, to jar the reader. It could be a first step toward recognizing the true power of language!

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