Although I didn’t think much about language, I recognized it as a bridge connecting people, communities, and society. It wasn’t until recently that I understood how our language could convey more than mere words. Language can either reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate discrimination OR challenge biases and promote inclusivity. It reflects the world around us and influences our thoughts and actions. An example highlighted in the Equity Fluent Leadership Playbook is the common misuse of language by media outlets when discussing crime rates in urban neighborhoods in the United States, using terms like ‘dangerous,’ ‘Hotspot,’ or ‘crime-ridden’ to describe predominantly Black or Latino communities. This type of language perpetuates a stereotype that people of color are inherently more prone to criminal behavior, ignoring the more systemic factors such as poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and over-policing that contribute to higher crime rates in these areas. This type of framing continuously reinforces harmful ideologies about people of color while creating a sense of fear and mistrust. 

Language matters even more in the global health space for multiple reasons. For one, it impacts communication and how people interact with health messaging. It can be the difference between empowering individuals and communities and negatively impacting their psychological well-being. A typical example of health messaging reinforcing stereotypes could be a campaign about preventing obesity, suggesting that obesity is solely due to individual choices like eating and exercising, ignoring other factors like access to healthy food and the environment.

So why is language so crucial:

  • Cultural Appropriateness: We often need to realize that cultures are unique and different in many ways. What is applicable in one culture may not be acceptable in another. As an immigrant in the US, I once had an encounter with a woman and her child. “I believed I paid her child a good compliment when I mentioned she had lovely ‘dreadlocks’—a word with no hidden meaning except the type of hair like a fringe or braids. However, my statement angered her, as I was unaware that the word ‘dreadlocks’ may carry a negative connotation in some cultures. This demonstrates the depth of our language and how even well-intentioned remarks can evoke negative responses”. If I attempted to provide her with details on an employment program for young mothers, she likely wouldn’t be receptive to what I had to offer. Similarly, much can be lost with health information and communication when we use language that appears idealistically correct but isn’t realistically culturally relevant or responsive to our target audience.
  • Stigma and Stereotype reinforcement: This is a constant battle within public health. Language plays a critical role in shaping perceptions and attitudes of specific populations. Stigmatizing or judgmental language can reinforce negative stereotypes and make it harder for people to seek healthcare. For instance, talking about substance use disorder as a medical issue rather than a moral failing reduces stigma and encourages seeking treatment. The way we talk about health issues, particularly those not openly spoken about, determines whether people ask for help or “die” in silence. Our language should be supportive and not patronizing, showing empathy and focusing on the person’s ability to recover and overcome. 

So, how can we do better with our use of language??

  1. Listen and Learn: Take the time to listen to individuals from diverse backgrounds and learn about their experiences, cultural norms, and preferred terminology.
  2. Be Respectful and Humble: Approach conversations with humility and respect, acknowledging that your understanding may be limited and subject to cultural biases.
  3. Use Person-First Language: Prioritize people over their conditions or identities. For example, use “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “homeless people.”
  4. Avoid Stereotypes and Generalizations: Refrain from using language that reinforces stereotypes or perpetuates harmful narratives about marginalized communities.
  5. Seek Feedback and Guidance: Ask, Ask, Ask, simply speak to a person or community to ensure your language is inclusive and respectful.
  6. Stay open to growth and change: Language evolves, and cultural norms vary. Stay open to feedback, adapt your language practices, and commit to continuous learning and improvement.

Useful Links

Advancing Language for Racial Equity and Inclusion