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Avoid Softening Language and Other Actions for Allies

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

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1. Avoid “softening language”

Wednesday, January 6, 2021, was a day like no other, and I’m overwhelmed by the attack on my country’s democracy by white supremacists. Maybe you are as well.

While there’s much I’m processing about my own white privilege and the benefits I’ve received over my life because of my race, I decided to start today’s newsletter with just one takeaway from yesterday: Language matters.

As I learned from my friend and linguistic expert Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, “there is a lot of ‘softening language’ being used to describe this unprecedented violent attack on the American peaceful transfer of power.” In other words, people are using much gentler words than the situation warrants, most likely to avoid causing discomfort to people with power and privilege (aka white people). Here are some examples she gave: Using “protests” and “protestors” instead of “riots”, “terrorists,” and “domestic terrorism.”

Nicole Cardoza also explored this topic in the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter on January 7, 2021: “Use the correct terminology when referring to these events. These were armed terrorists [not protestors] staging an attempted coup [not demonstration].”

Whether you’re in a position of handling external or internal communications for your company or simply discussing the attack with colleagues, remember that your language matters. As Dr. Wertheim wrote, “Use the appropriate terminology. It doesn’t have to be exaggerated to have a real impact. Just technically accurate.”

2. Use hard-earned titles

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece stating that Dr. Jill Biden, who earned a doctorate in education, should think about dropping the honorific. Why? The author claimed that it “feels fraudulent, even comic” for the soon-to-be First Lady of the United States to do so.

I was reminded of something that happened in 2018. Across social media, women with PhDs started adding “Dr.” to their profile names to claim their hard-earned achievement and push back in solidarity against trolls who were calling them “arrogant,” “immodest,” or “vain” for doing so.

It all started with a tweet by Dr. Jensen Moore‏:

“Added Dr. to my Twitter name today. Always felt I shouldn’t because I’d been married to a ‘real’ doctor (orthopedic surgeon). So I was just the ‘paper Dr.’ But I worked 3 jobs to put him through medical school WHILE getting my Ph.D. and having our 2 kids. So #ImmodestWomen it is.”

Can you imagine a white man getting flak for insisting that people use the right honorific when addressing him? Or calling him “vain” for referring to himself as Dr.? Recognizing this double standard, hundreds of women responded, many of them by adding Dr. to their own handles. I love that they used the #ImmodestWomen hashtag to draw attention to the issue. You know what else? I love that “Dr.” is a gender-neutral title.

Let’s support every person from an underrepresented group who decides to be confident, authoritative, and proud of their hard-earned achievements — whether by claiming their credentials in their social media profiles or with some other action.

3. Rethink college degree requirements

Just before the holidays, I read in the Wall Street Journal that leading CEOs have pledged one million jobs for Black Americans. Collectively, they’ve raised $100 million for OneTen, a startup that will focus on training Black candidates for corporate roles.

In the article, I noticed an important statistic. “80% of working-age Black Americans don’t have a four-year college degree, making it a structural barrier for meaningful employment at many companies.” I then read that while IBM once required a college degree for all its jobs, 43% of its jobs today don’t require a four-year degree.

This is a wake-up call to examine job descriptions. Remove “4-year college degree required” unless it’s absolutely needed to do the job. Doing so may very well open the door for talent that might not otherwise apply.

4. Include image descriptions on your photos

Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer, speaker & author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, recently tweeted a new year’s challenge:

“Most images on Twitter lack descriptions, excluding #blind people like myself from conversations & critical information. Start 2021 with a commitment to include image descriptions with your photos & help increase #accessibility. Here’s a guide #a11y”

I hope you will join me in taking this simple action to be more inclusive. Not just on Twitter, but on all social media platforms.

Looking for guidance on how to write descriptions that are meaningful to people using screen readers? Check out this helpful guide from the New York City’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. (Thanks to Tiffany Yu, the CEO & Founder at Diversability, who told me about this resource.)

Diversability has more recommendations for stock photos, captioning, and editorial guidelines here.

5. Preorder ”Better Allies” — the Second Edition

I have some exciting news to share: The Second Edition of Better Allies will be available on January 11th.

Since originally publishing my book two years ago, I’ve amassed dozens of new scenarios, research, and insights, with a specific focus on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), LGBTQ people, and women at work. I can’t wait to share it with all of you.

You can preorder the Kindle version now. Note the special pricing of just US $2.99, available only until January 18, 2021. (Similar discounts available in other marketplaces as well.) After January 18th, the Kindle pricing will go back to the standard US $9.99.

Print books will be available to order next week.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

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Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.



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Better Allies®

Better Allies®

Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.