Is your communication anti-racist? - United Way Alberta Capital Region

Is your communication anti-racist?

March 21, 2022


Content warning: This blog includes brief mentions of violence and racism. If you need support, you can call, text, or chat with 211 Alberta to find resources near you.

Racialized individuals experience poverty at a higher rate than non-racialized people, according to research from Colour of Poverty.

Although limited data exists for all groups, United Way of the Alberta Capital Region recognizes that to build pathways out of poverty, we must work to break down barriers such as racism, bias, and discrimination that prevent certain members of our community from thriving.

In the last two years, our awareness of hate and violence toward Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour has grown. Asians have been targeted due to misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The confirmation of unmarked graves at the sites of Canada’s residential schools has retraumatized many Indigenous communities. And horrific acts of anti-Black violence, including the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, have dominated news headlines.

As much as we would like to believe these incidents are unrelated to our everyday life, we all have a role to play in ending racial discrimination. Language is constantly evolving, so it stands to reason that many of us use words and phrases without really understanding their origins. Similarly, as language and other forms of self-expression become trendy, we might not know when we are appropriating culture.

As March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, what better time to start being more mindful of how we communicate contributes to harmful racial stereotypes.

The internet is co-opting Black culture
Using GIFs, emojis, and memes is a common form of communication in this digital age. While it may seem harmless to answer a friend’s text with an Oprah Winfrey GIF or note your brilliant project idea with a Roll Safe GIF, overusing these forms of communication can lead to digital blackface.


‘Digital blackface’ describes the racist minstrel performance of the 19th century — in which people darken their skin and act as black caricatures — translated to the digital realm through the overuse of Black Reaction GIFs and memes on social media. This emphasizes the association of Black people with exaggerated emotions, and in turn, is othering by co-opting, and erasing Black culture. And this appropriation causes harm by perpetuating stereotypes and turning culture into a commodity.

Also included in the umbrella of digital blackface is the use of Black Vernacular English (BVE) by non-Black people. Enslaved people used BVE to communicate without interference from their enslavers. Common BVE terms you might be familiar with include woke, lit, bae, yass, basic, slay, and sis. It also includes the liberal use of emojis.

For while reaction GIFs can and do every feeling under the sun, white and non-Black users seem to especially prefer GIFs with black people when it comes to emitting their most exaggerated emotions. Extreme joy, annoyance, anger, and occasions for drama and gossip are a magnet for images of Black people, especially Black femmes. … Reaction GIFs are an uneasy reminder of the way our presence is extra visible in life, every day, in ways that get us profiled, harassed, mocked, beaten, and killed.

Lauren Michele JacksonWe Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs,” Teen Vogue

Decolonize your language
Every language has its own idioms. But most English-speaking Canadians aren’t necessarily taught the context or history behind the words and phrases we learn. So, it’s understandable that there are things we say in conversation that, unbeknownst to us, have a darker meaning.

Some of these include:

  • No can do / Long time, no see: These phrases mock the speech of English-language learners and how, in other languages, the sentence structure may be different than English.
  • Spooky: During World War II, white soldiers used ‘spook’ as a slur against Black soldiers.
  • Grandfathered in: A grandfather clause was used to limit voting eligibility to those whose ancestors could vote, preventing many Black Americans from voting.
  • Tribe, powwow, and spirit animal: These terms are used to describe a connection to other people, animals, or items. But they are deeply significant to Indigenous culture and should only be used in this context.
  • Savage: This word has developed a quasi-positive meaning of fierce and intimidating. It was used by colonizers to describe and to justify the oppression of Indigenous peoples and people of colour.
  • Gypped and gypsy: Gypped may be used when describing an unfair deal, while some people use Gypsy to define a free-spirited person. However, both words are slurs against Roma people.
  • Canada’s Indigenous People: Indigenous people do not belong to Canada.
  • Blacklist, black sheep, blackmail: These phrases reinforce that Black is bad or negative, and white is good or positive.

Anti-racism work can seem daunting, but we can become more anti-racist by actively reflecting on the language we use, its origins, and how we may be perpetuating harmful and racist stereotypes.

Resources & Further Reading
We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs, Teen Vogue

Words and phrases you may want to think twice about using, CBC Ottawa

11 Common English Words and Phrases With Racist Origins, Babbel

For a deeper dive into decolonizing language with an Indigenous lens, check out the CBC podcast Telling our Twisted Histories, hosted by Kaniehti:io Horn