With the groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter and racial justice, my company — like many corporations — has decided it wants to jump on the bandwagon. To this end, my boss delegated my coworker to draft some writing standards to ensure our documentation is appropriately inclusive.
I agree with this plan. For example, when I write, “An advisor generates a report. When he reviews it…” I really should stop to think about whether I need to write “he.” Could I say “she” or “they,” or should I just rewrite it to avoid gendering “advisor” in the first place? We don’t want to implicitly assume advisors are all cis-gender men preferring the “he” pronoun. Most of the time we can write around it, and I think we should do so.
Similarly, if I’m describing clients, I want to choose names more carefully. I naturally gravitate to “Jane Doe” or one of our company’s existing standard characters — all with names like Michael, Georgia, Jessica, and John. There’s no reason that, if I’m naming a fictional character, I shouldn’t pick a more multicultural name. After all, our clients serve investors with an incredibly wide array of racial backgrounds, and my company has a stated goal of promoting financial wellness among minorities. Our writing should reflect that.
All well and good. Here’s where I trip up. In addition to thinking about these types of global stereotypes and how to diversify, the guidelines also say to avoid words like “blacklist” and “whitelist,” “black hat” and “whitehat,” and “black magic.”
If you Google it, you’ll find all sorts of discussions around whether “blacklist” is racist or not (etymologically it seems that the answer is no, it didn’t start that way; but the argument rages on about how people might perceive it). I’m sure the same is true of “black magic” and, for all I know, “black sheep,” “black book,” “blackball,” and any other word starting with “black.”
Fortunately, the need among technical writers to use a phrase like “black magic” is vanishingly small, and in such cases the writer could probably write around it easily enough. Writers can even make a legitimate argument that replacing the word “blacklist” with a more descriptive term like “blocked list” or “deny list” could be clearer and serve the reader better.
What I balk at is the fact that most of those phrases don’t have any basis in racism in the first place. “Black hat hacker” and “white hat hacker,” for example, refer to the practice in 1950s Westerns of giving villains black cowboy hats and heroes white cowboy hats. Nothing to do with skin color. (Let’s be honest — 1950s Westerns weren’t exactly a rainbow parade of diversity, and they had their own problems with racism, toxic masculinity, and more, none of which are relevant here.) If that’s the case, are people of color harmed or offended by when they read “black hat hacker”? I honestly don’t know, because I’m a white gal and I see through my lens. I’m open to being wrong, but I just get the sense that’s not what Black Lives Matter is worried about.
More generally, are we going to scrub all of English from using “black” to indicate bad things? The concept of “black” as linked to night, darkness, a scary time when scary things happen — these are all completely unrelated to skin pigmentation. It’s starting to seem a little overboard. Instead, maybe we could describe human skin tones more accurately, when we need to mention it at all, since “black” and “white” aren’t even accurate representations of the pigment variations among people.
While I’ll abide by my company’s guidelines, I’m not sure this is the place we need to plant the stake in the ground. I’d like to know from minorities of all types what kinds of writing offends them, and make changes based on that. Not just some sense that any word starting with “black” that has a negative connotation must be offensive and racist and eradicated from our lexicon.