Writing about people with dignity involves more than just using the “right” words. In the article “Beyond Terminology: Zooming Out to Focus on Bias,” Karin Yin, founder of Conscious Style Guide, recommends checking for bias in writing at multiple levels. Some of the principles she discusses that are relevant to nonfiction writing are:
Yin defines parity as “how we treat people in parallel contexts.” For example, she writes: “If you’re going to make one person’s race relevant, make everyone’s race relevant equally.”
After two swimmers achieved historic firsts at the Olympics—Michael Phelps for earning a record number of gold medals and Simone Manuel for being the first African American woman in the sport to win an individual gold—a San Jose newspaper used the headline: “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African American.” After complaints that the headline unfairly erased Manuel, the paper changed it to: “Olympics: Stanford’s Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps make history.”
Yin defines framing as “how we assign interpretations and conclusions.” She writes: “Consider these words: Sound vs. noise. Plant vs. weed. Religion vs. cult. We can infuse judgment into any description by selecting judge-y words, but often, judge-y words were selected due to an underlying racial bias [this also applies to other types of bias] about people’s nature and their motivations, and this affects how the whole event is framed.”
For example, in their style guide, the National Association of Black Journalists cautions against using the words ghetto or inner city, “[t]erms used as synonyms for sections of cities inhabited by poor people or minorities.” The guide says: “Avoid these descriptions because of their negative connotations. Often the name of the neighborhood is the best choice.”
Yin defines representation as “how we balance population, proportion and perception.” She writes: “Instead of returning to the same stories, casting the same characters, recreating the same associations, tell a different story. One way is by putting a spotlight on subgroups that experience erasure within communities already marginalized. The most visible are not representative of the community.”
As a final thought, Yin advises making sure the audience you picture when you write is a diverse one. Your audience includes all of the people described in this guide. To paraphrase Yin: Write to all members of this diverse audience, not just about them.