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7 Harmful Racial Discourse Practices to Avoid

We provide definitions for the practices and describe the specific negative effects these practices have on racial discourse.
Published: 01/2021


This resource identifies and describes seven harmful racial discourse practices that are found not just in mainstream media, but also more broadly throughout our society. They are used by public officials and their staffs, by lawyers and judges, and by advocates of various political backgrounds, by cultural and entertainment figures, and by others with power and influence over public perception and behavior.

We provide definitions for the practices and describe the specific negative effects these practices have on racial discourse. Each practice discussion also contains an example or two of its use from recent events—some carried out by news media and others carried out by public officials and their staffs, by lawyers and judges, and by advocates of various political backgrounds, by cultural and entertainment figures, and by others with power and influence over public perception and behavior.


Taken as a whole, we argue that:

  • When these harmful racial discourse practices succeed, either individually or acting collectively within a single narrative, they stifle the general public’s understanding of systemic racism.
  • The seven harmful racial discourse practices reinforce the common misconception that racism is simply a problem of rare, isolated, individual attitudes and actions, and most damagingly, that as a significant barrier to the success of people of color, racism is a thing of the past.
  • Taken together, these harmful discourse practices often ostensibly promote a blanket standard of “colorblindness,” while simultaneously promoting so-called “race-neutral” policies and practices that reinforce the power of white anxiety and fear in policymaking and decision-making.

Everyday recommendations for how readers can help overcome these harmful racial discourse practices follow this section of the report.


Concentrating attention exclusively on thoughts or acts of personal prejudice. 

Effect on Racial Discourse 

Reinforces the common misconception that racism is simply a personal problem that should be resolved by shaming, punishing, or re-educating the individual offender. Often leads to long, inconclusive debates about what is in a person’s “heart,” and whether or not they intended to be hurtful or discriminatory. Perpetuates false notions of individual agency in our national consciousness. (normal text)


A celebrity or prominent business owner is surreptitiously recorded using racial slurs or otherwise demeaning people of color, particularly a group he or she relies upon as employees, consumers, and/or sources of substantive content or inspiration. Media and general public focus moral indignation on the hurtful words rather than any corresponding record of discrimination in their business practices or impact.

2. Falsely Equating Incomparable Acts

Drawing a parallel between an act or expression of racial bias from privileged whites and one from that of comparatively disadvantaged people of color, without taking into account any power differentials between the two.

Effect on Racial Discourse

Provides an excuse for, or otherwise seeks to absolve, an individual who has ex- pressed a racist idea or committed a racist act. Encourages the audience to apply a blanket standard of “colorblindness” without acknowledging that the biases of whites have a broader impact and get reinforced by institution and systems of power in ways that the biases of people and communities of color do not.


Cell phone footage is released of two Latino young men using racially charged language against white and African American police officers in response to an incident of racial profiling that quickly escalates into violent police brutality. Media and pundits on the left and right of the political spectrum focus time and attention on discussing and condemning the “reverse racism” of the youth rather than the history of systemic racism and community complaints about the department.


The practice of asserting that other social identities besides race — such as class, gender, or sexual orientation — are the predominant determining factors behind a given social inequity.


Ranks systems of power and dismisses racism as a primary, or even legitimate, determinant of social inequity. This logic inhibits an understanding of how bias and discrimination against groups for one reason — race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class — intersects with others and works together. This promotes an either/or instead of a both/and framework. The latter offers an important sociological and historical perspective, rather than a single identity or non-racial analysis.


A statewide LGBT non-profit organization releases a report that includes findings on rising rates of LGBT youth homelessness. Media coverage fails to take into account and report on how race/ethnicity and immigrant status have differing impacts on the experience of homelessness for LGBT youth of color, and how they affect their interactions with public, nonprofit and private institutions.


Depicting government efforts to promote racial equity and inclusion as misguided, unnecessary and/or improper.


Undermines support for a significant government role in dismantling systemic racism. Suggests that if government would just “get out of the way” (i.e., stop infringing on the individual freedom of whites), we could have a “colorblind” country once and for all.


A low-income family of color recounts the story of how they “got in over their heads” in the housing market through the rapid refinancing of their home. Media coverage blames a government program for first-time homebuyers that helped the family make their initial purchase, for disrupting “market forces” which should be “free” from government “social engineering.”


Focusing more on the intention of a policy or practice and far less, if at all, on its daily impact on people and communities of color.


Devalues the humanity of the people and communities of color that bear the brunt of a policy’s implementation. Obscures the role of implicit bias in that policy’s operation, and reinforces the power of white fear in policy and decision-making.


As part of a public health campaign to treat and contain the outbreak of an infectious disease, a city mayor strongly connects the disease with a low-income East Asian immigrant community, thereby stigmatizing the group. Public statements from the city administration and reports on the outbreak in the media disregard the vantage point of those most affected and under-resourced in the health and education systems, particularly children who are likely to face harassment, bullying, and worse. Policy and public perspectives fail to take into account this group’s point of view on how best
to approach the issue.

6. Coded Language

Substituting terms describing racial identity with seemingly race-neutral terms that disguise explicit and/or implicit racial animus.


Injects language that triggers racial stereotypes and other negative associations without the stigma of explicit racism. Fosters anxiety among audiences for the coverage and dehumanizes people and communities of color.


Two or three shoplifting incidents in a downtown area, allegedly perpetrated by 8 to 10 African American junior high students, draw the attention of local news media. Quotes or descriptions from witnesses characterize the 11- to 12-year olds using “pack animal” imagery and terms such as “hyenas,” “menacing” and “vicious,” that play to white stereotypes and fears of youth of color.


Omitting, dismissing, or deliberately re-writing history.


Isolates racial disparities and attitudes from a historical context and instead presents them as a unique, individual instance. Results in incomplete or inaccurate understandings of the root causes of these disparities and attitudes. Obscures the pathway to illuminate which solutions are most viable or warranted. Miseducates the public.


Tribal leaders have floated a proposal to expand an American Indian gaming facility in a suburb of a major city where state lotteries and scratch cards abound. Media coverage of the American Indian proposals primarily reflects the perspective of and the potential effects upon the non-Indian population and do not mention principles of tribal sovereignty and
self-determination; how tribal lands were reserved through treaties with the United States; or the importance of economic development for Native tribes.

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