Words Matter

Activity #1: Positive/Negative


  • What positive terms can you think of with the word white?  
  • What negative terms with the word black?

Note that there are more positive expressions with white and more negative ones with black. Associations with dirt and evil go back centuries, but the 16th century solidified the connection.


(i) The Grammarphobia Blog: The light and dark of language

“It wasn’t until the late 1580s that “black” was used figuratively to mean “having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister,” according to the OED. 

The published usages include “black curse” (1583); “black name” and “black Prince” (1599, Shakespeare); “blacke edict” and “blacke victory” (1640); “black moment” (1713); “black enemy” (1758); and “black augury” (1821, Byron).

Around the same time, “black” took on other negative meanings, including horribly wicked or atrocious, as in “blacke soule” (1581); “blacke works” (1592); “blackest criminals” (1692); “blackest Calumnies” (1713); “black ingratitude” (1738, Macaulay); “the blackest dye” (1749, Fielding); and “black lie” (1839).”

(ii) Why is ‘black’ always a bad word? | Editorials

“Consider: Black market. Blacklist. Black eye. Black out. Black box. Black mood. Black magic. Black death. Black sheep. Black face. Black hand. Black head. Black hole. Blackshirt. Blackmail. Blackleg. Blackball. Black mark. The list goes on and on.”

(iii) Confronting Subtle Racism in Therapy

“The English language is in bed with racism, even though most of us are usually unaware of that fact. Everyday language reminds African Americans in matter-of-fact ways that our color is related to extortion (blackmail), disrepute (black mark), rejection (blackball), banishment (blacklist), impurity (not the driven snow), illicitness (black market), and death. Casting aspersions on black or darkness while praising white or light isn’t universal, and regardless of the intentions of the user of these expressions, such usage colludes with racism. Words can injure, even if the wound isn’t immediately evident.”

Why does this matter?

  • This word association can lead to an implicit attitude where white = good and black = bad. Remember the results of the implicit bias test from the Are You Biased session.
  • This use of languages reinforces stereotypes and supports anti-Black racism.

Note that this doesn’t only apply to the coded meanings of terms, but also about how certain events are covered. Examples: Kate’s pregnancy vs Meghan’s, or description of young white men with guns vs young Black men with guns.  

There are also other forms of linguistic bias, like using mental or physical disabilities as insults.

Activity #2: Flip The Switch

  • What negative terms can you think of with the word white?
  • What positive terms can you think of with the word black?
  • Research the meanings of any you don’t know.


Positive expressions with black:

  • Black belt
  • Being in the black
  • Dark chocolate
  • Black tie event
  • Dark roast coffee
  • Black credit card
  • Little black dress
  • The new black

Negative expressions with white:

  • Light/lightweight
  • White bread
  • Vanilla = plain, boring
  • White feather – cowardice
  • White elephant

Activity #3: Exploring Common Expressions

Visit the Language Matters Instagram account ➡️

Pick  an expression, read the slides and caption. Reflect on what you have learned. 

Consider: Is it OK to mention race?

Think about:

  • Is it simply descriptive?
  • Is it relevant?
  • Is it a way of othering?

They say: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Is that true?

Further Reading

7 Phrases Everyone Needs to Stop Using to Describe Black People

  • Thug – who do you picture; look up the actual meaning and see it could be anyone
  • Inner city/urban – lots of people live there but often a coded reference to Black populated area
  • Ghetto – a place where minority groups live or are exiled as in WW2. Often pejorative to Black culture
  • Uppity – again, predominantly used to refer to Black people
  • Shady – overtones of skin color in disparaging actions

Readers Respond: Which Racial Terms Make You Cringe?

  • Words that many Black people don’t like.
  • Exotic – it is othering?
  • Minority – we are people of the global majority.
  • Expats vs immigrants – note the skin color.

When Racial Bias is Taught Through Children’s Literature

Anti-Racism for Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide to Fighting Hate

Guiding Students to Question Prejudices

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice