Being committed to equity means acknowledging the ways our everyday practices may contribute to oppression. Sometimes, words we use innocently can have unsavoury origins or unintended disrespect. Many of us may regularly use such words or phrases in conversation without knowing the impact they have on the equity-seeking groups. But when we know better, we must do better.
Below is a (far from exhaustive) list of words and phrases we should aim to remove from our vocabulary and language we can use in their place:
Instead of ‘bottom of the totem pole,’ try ‘least significant’
Totem poles are striking monuments usually carved from the wood of cedar trees. These carvings, which can sometimes be as tall as 9 metres, are not just beautiful; they are sacred to the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. For these First Nations peoples, totem poles document their family’s lineage, their rights to certain lands, and meaningful moments in their history. Each totem pole features crests that are significant to family the pole represents.
For decades, when colonial rulers were trying to force Indigenous people to assimilate, totem poles were placed in museums around the world or cut down at the direction of missionaries. Great effort has been made by Indigenous peoples to reclaim totem poles and begin carving and erecting them according to their traditional customs again.
One of the side effects of colonial interference with totem poles is that they were appropriated by non-Indigenous people. This appropriation also led to cultural misinterpretations, such as the idea that totem poles are hierarchal structures. That’s how we got the phrase ‘bottom of the totem pole.’ However, totem poles are not designed to reflect social ranking. In fact, in some cases, the figure at the bottom of the totem pole is the most important.
When we use ‘bottom of the totem pole’ to suggest that something is meaningless or unimportant, we are repeating and perpetuating false colonial beliefs about Indigenous cultures. We ignore the rich cultural significance of totem poles and the histories they document. We can replace this phrase with ‘least significant’ or ‘least important’ which allows us to say what we really mean without disrespecting a cultural artefact of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest.
Instead of ‘let’s have a powwow,’ try ‘let’s have a huddle/meeting’
People often use the word powwow to refer to quick or impromptu meetings, but in Indigenous cultures, there is nothing quick or casual about a powwow. There is some disagreement about the origin of the powwow, but it is widely accepted that they originated with Northern Plains First Nations and the term came from the Algonquian language. Many scholars believe that the word initially referred to a gathering of spiritual leaders in a healing ceremony.
In more modern times, powwows have become celebrations and displays of Indigenous food, music, dances, and traditional clothing. These events are carefully planned, and they are often where families and friends gather, share meals, and celebrate their culture together.
The current misuse of the term powwow is not the first time the word has been misappropriated. In the 1800s, European folk healers used the term and incorporated Indigenous dancing styles as they travelled across North America. Then in the early 1900s, the Canadian and US governments banned powwows and traditional dancing on reserves. The Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation and Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan held powwows in secret despite the restrictions.
These restrictions were eventually lifted when Indigenous communities led, in part, by Indigenous veterans returning from WWII, demanded the freedom to practice their traditional ceremonies and religion. The ban had been in place so long that some traditions and ceremonies were lost, but First Nations people have worked tirelessly to revive these cultural events. Powwows continue to represent a refusal to abandon their culture and assimilate.
We can respect the efforts that Indigenous people have made to preserve and celebrate their culture despite centuries of oppression (that still continues today) by not flippantly using the term ‘powwow’ to refer to casual meetings. Instead, we can use words like ‘meeting,’ ‘session,’ or ‘huddle.’
Instead of ‘tribe,’ try ‘people/community’
The dictionary definition of tribe is “a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations.” However, although that definition could be applied to groups of people of any racial or ethnic group, the word ‘tribe’ is used almost exclusively to refer to Indigenous and African peoples. Before we use the word tribe to refer to these racial groups, we should consider why it has been used so selectively.
At the end of the War of 1812, American commissioners insisted that the Indigenous people be referred to as ‘tribes’ rather than ‘nations.’ Their rationale was that the First Nations did not deserve the dignity of a word like ‘nations.’ This signifies not only long-standing anti-Indigenous prejudice, but the pejorative nature of the word tribe. The word was often associated with primitive behaviour and ‘savagery.’
The word is applied similarly in the context of African peoples. When the word ‘tribe’ is used in the context of Africa, specific images of poverty, underdevelopment, and primitiveness typically come to mind. Even though those images are not the reality for most of the African continent, the word tribe continues to perpetuate negative stereotypes and ideas about African countries and peoples. Because of these connotations, conflicts and issues in Africa are viewed through the lens of these racist stereotypes.
If you are finding it challenging to understand the problem with using the word tribe to describe African and Indigenous people, consider why the term seems to apply so easily to those groups but not to groups of European people. When referring to groups of African and Indigenous peoples, swap out the word ‘tribe’ for ‘people’ or ‘community’ unless that group specifically refers to themselves that way.
Instead of ‘crazy/insane,’ try ‘unbelievable’
It is no secret that there is a stigma around mental health. In recent decades, we have made great progress towards acknowledging and addressing the realities and needs of those living with mental illness. But there are still many negative ideas and attitudes towards mental health issues. These range from labelling people with mental health as dangerous or ill-intentioned to dismissing people struggling with mental illness as ‘crazy.’
The word ‘crazy’ was first used to describe people with mental health conditions in the 1800s. It was applied to a person who appeared to be deranged. But ‘crazy’ is not nearly complex enough a word to explain the complicated and varying symptoms of different mental health conditions. It has always been reductive, but, in modern times, it has become an insult to describe behaviour that seems out of the norm. It suggests that the person being describes is irrational, unable to think clearly, and prone to making bad decisions.
‘Crazy’ is an easy word to reach for when we see something unbelievable. But it is worth the effort to use the word we actually mean. If your partner is being unfair, a performance is incredible, or an incident is shocking, use those descriptors instead of choosing a word that contributes to the stigma those living with mental illness feel.
Instead of ‘guru,’ try ‘expert/pro’
The word ‘guru’ has become a popular term to describe someone who is the best at what they do. Professionals in everything from business and finance to health and relationships have used the term guru to describe their expertise. But ‘guru’ is not just a title for someone who teaches others. The word originates from Sanskrit, and refers to a person who is knowledgeable, wise, and able to offer spiritual guidance. Gurus are sacred figures in several Asian religions and cultures.
Part of the religious practice of Hindus is the quest to achieve moksha or enlightenment or freedom from the cycle of birth and death. It is a state of self-awareness and self-actualization and a central concept of the religion. Many Hindus seek the support of a guru in their pursuit of moksha. Guru’s offer spiritual guidance, and offer their students practices and instructions to help them advance. They often lived with their gurus or lived near enough to visit them frequently. In Hinduism, a person becomes a guru when they receive the permission of their own guru.
Similarly, in Buddhism, gurus are spiritual teachers who lead their students to their own inner wisdom. Students share their struggles with their gurus and offer them support on their spiritual journey. Sikhs refer to their religion as ‘the Way of the Guru.’ According to the traditional story of the founding of the faith, ten human gurus founded and led the religion. The spirit that led those gurus later occupied the sacred Sikh text which then became the sole Guru.
Out of respect for the religion and cultures where the word ‘guru’ originated, it is important that we not appropriate the term for everyday use. The English language is rich with words we can use instead, such as ‘expert,’ ‘tutor,’ ‘master,’ ‘leader,’ ‘authority,’ ‘guide,’ ‘teacher,’ ‘adviser,’ and ‘coach.’
In the near future, we’ll offer similar lists to help you be more conscious of equity in your everyday speech. If there are other words or terms you would like us to explore, please leave them in the comments below. You can also learn more of the language of equity in our recent blog post.
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Britannica. (2020, June 1). Sikhism. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sikhism
Caddell, J. (2020, July 3). What is stigma. https://www.verywellmind.com/mental-illness-and-stigma-2337677
Ewing, R. (2018, September 27). “That’s crazy”: Why you might want to rethink that word in your vocabulary. https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-blog/2018/september/that-crazy-why-you-might-want-to-rethink-that-word-in-your-vocabulary
Indigenous Foundations. (n.d.). Totem poles. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/totem_poles/
Khadro, C. (2017, March 15). Relevance of the guru in Buddhism. https://medium.com/@pdorje/relevance-of-the-guru-in-buddhism-365e37ca04bd
Lowe, C. (2001). The trouble with tribe. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/spring-2001/the-trouble-with-tribe
McDermott, M. (2019, February 27). 8 things you may want to know about gurus. https://www.hinduamerican.org/blog/8-things-you-may-want-to-know-about-gurus/
Newcomb, S. (2004, December 8). On the words ‘tribe’ and ‘nation.’ https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/on-the-words-tribe-and-nation-NUTfP-tyU0uqza8cle2BSg
Powwows.com. (n.d.). What is a Pow Wow. https://www.powwows.com/main/native-american-pow-wow/
The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2007, March 15). Totem pole. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/totem-pole
The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2016, April 7). History of Powwows. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/history-of-powwows