Dear Cultural Coach:

I called my friend ‘a black girl from Jamaica.’ Bad word choice?

Linda S. Wallace, Special to The New Tri-State Defender | 9/16/2016, 1:21 p.m.
I called my friend ‘a black girl from Jamaica.’ Bad word choice?
Linda S. Wallace

Dear Cultural Coach:

In a conversation with a friend at work, I identified another person by color and country of origin, i.e., “she’s a black girl from Jamaica.” The person I was talking with is black, and I certainly did not mean to communicate anything negative, but now I am concerned about my choice of words. If the person I was describing happened to be overweight, I would not have said that because that’s a negative comment, but I don’t feel that way about the terms black or white. If I made a mistake, I want to know, so I can avoid doing it again.

HUGH, a middle-aged white guy

Dear Hugh:

Many of my friends would have been more taken aback by your use of the word “girl” than by your decision to include the term black.

You may not have meant any harm, but many women are likely to conclude your word choice indicates that you see them as second-class. If you do not also call grown men “boys,” you may need to conduct a cultural audit and inventory of your feelings.

There is a range of opinion as to when and where it is appropriate to refer to another person’s race. Our reaction is likely to be linked to the size and strength of our own racial or ethnic identity. Even within the same family, we can have brothers who describe themselves as Italian-Americans and sisters who prefer “American.”

When it comes to this sensitive topic, one label never fits all. Each of us has to decide which descriptive term suits us best. Those who argue that no one should refer to another person’s race inadvertently take away the rights of those whose sense of self is powerfully connected to this trait. Inclusiveness is such a noble goal: We have to learn new skills to negotiate differences, but each of us can hold on to our heritage and cultural riches.

My major concern with your comment is you did not describe your colleague in a manner that provided much meaningful insight. How likely is it that the woman you described introduces herself, or thinks of herself, as the “black girl from Jamaica?”

Your statement sheds light on how you view the world and catalog its people. However, it would be difficult for a team of investigators to seek and find the woman based on your data.

So how do we handle this touchy situation? We can listen as friends and colleagues describe themselves, and then use the same words they do. Additionally, when we refer to another’s race, ethnicity or gender, we may communicate it in a manner that shows respect rather than disapproval. If you were to describe me, for example, you might say, “Linda Wallace is a Philadelphian columnist who joyously celebrates the fact that she is African-American.” Our investigators could track me down easily.

This technique also allows us to address body size issues. If we are embarrassed to mention the fact that a friend is heavy, then, again, we are displaying our bias. In some cultures, voluptuous people are the sexy ones. Our challenge is to learn how to take note of another person’s size without being offensive. I might say: “My friend Chris is a heavy-set man with a powerful sense of self-worth.”

We grow as culturally competent communicators by listening to friends and colleagues. Adopting their word choices and preferences helps us to avoid pitfalls and words that are open to misinterpretation.

(Linda S. Wallace is