It’s happened to all of us. You’re happily copyediting along, checking the spellings of names and correcting misplaced commas, when you come up short. Your normally thoughtful author has written something that’s, well, frankly, kind of racist.
Not on purpose, of course. In fact, your author probably has no idea that what they’ve written could be a problem. But it’s jarring enough to stop you in your tracks. You are well aware that readers are likely to have the same reaction.
What do you do?
First, take a deep breath. Here are three steps to help you solve the problem constructively.
Identify the Problem
What did the author mean to say? Are they unaware of a phrase’s connotations? Have they made erroneous assumptions, or are they deliberately trying to provoke readers to make a point? As comedian Hari Kondabolu puts it: “Pressing buttons is fine, as long as you know the buttons you’re pressing, why you’re pressing them & accept the aftermath of said pressing.”
Assume the Best Intentions
Phrase your query to the author in a way that assumes the problem is unintentional. For many people, especially white people, the term racist is enough to press the panic button. You might be talking about what the person said, not who they are or what they believe, but the nuances are likely to go unnoticed once you’ve uttered the R-word. Instead, let the author know that you’re on their side. Try phrases like:
- “Perhaps you weren’t aware, but this could be interpreted to imply that …”
- “This wording could be viewed as insensitive because …”
- “This idiom has its roots in slavery and is probably best avoided; instead, consider …”
Phrases like these get the point across while making it clear that you’re protecting the author from unintended consequences.
Suggest a Solution
Give the author an out by suggesting more inclusive language that gets to the intended meaning without the unintended problems of the original phrasing.
Following these steps will help your author avoid alienating readers or making embarrassing gaffes while helping you build a constructive, collaborative, and trusting relationship with your author.
You can learn more about what inclusive language is, how to recognize potential problems, and how to handle sticky situations in Sarah’s In-Depth Course Inclusive Language: A Practical Approach to Avoiding Bias starting April 12, 2016. Sign up today!
Sarah Grey is a freelance editor and writer at Grey Editing LLC in Philadelphia. She speaks frequently on topics related to inclusive language and serves as a member-at-large on the Editorial Freelancers Association board of governors. Before becoming a full-time freelancer, Sarah spent several years in the translation industry, where she learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and of understanding a text’s audience. She specializes in academic nonfiction, social justice, and food writing.