Divisive stereotypes in language: 7 ways to stop them

Divisive stereotypes in language: 7 ways to stop them

“Oh, I didn’t mean you.”

In the 1990s I was the only female manager at a very traditional engineering company in the UK.

In a management discussion one day, one of my male colleagues expressed his view that “women don’t make good managers”.

That was his opinion, and he stated it as if that was the end of the conversation.

When he met my gaze, he quickly added “Well, I don’t mean you.”

But of course he meant me. He had just insulted my whole gender and condemned half the world’s population to a stereotype – that women are not made for management and only men can do a good job in that respect.

When I asked him why he held that view about women not making good managers, all he was able to say was, “They just don’t.”

This kind of prejudice goes on all the time, of course – and often the person expressing the negative stereotype cannot actually articulate a valid reason for holding their view.

Gender, colour, ability/mobility, nationality, sexual orientation, faith, cultural heritage, address, accent, diet, financial means – every minority or special interest ‘group’ faces negative stereotyping. It’s often subtle, and divisive words and phrases can insidiously creep into language and become the norm.

But we all make assumptions and say things that we really need to question before we express them. We’re often quite unaware of the assumptions we make.

Listen to the adjectives used to describe women in day-to-day conversation, in the media, in obituaries and in reviews. The word ‘intelligent’ is often used when someone is specifically describing a woman – not because there’s a particular difference between men and women in this respect, but because men are assumed to be intelligent by default.

You’re much less likely to hear the word ‘intelligent’ in a description of a specific man.

Relegating the ‘other’ to second place

These annoyances (to put it mildly) are not limited to gender of course. People of colour, for example, face them every single day.

I’ve often heard White people describing someone they know who is Black using the phrase, “He’s Black…but he’s very nice.”

In those six words the speaker has established the default for Black people as ‘not nice’. The qualifying remark “…but he’s very nice” has been added to show that the specific person they’re talking about is an exception.

None of this is new, of course – but what’s vital for all of us to remember is that when language goes unchallenged, it becomes normalised. It becomes unconscious in its use. And once it’s ‘normal’, even fewer people challenge it.

The 2016 European Union (EU) Referendum campaign in the UK created a new kind of divisive language in that country. Words like ‘European’, ‘immigrant’, ‘foreigner’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ were given new and deeply racist meanings: The new meanings equated to: invaders, threats, illegal, scroungers, criminals…

Even the name of the referendum was used to manipulate minds: ‘Brexit’ (i.e. leaving the EU) was applied to the whole referendum (“the Brexit referendum”), whereas ‘Brexit’ was only one of two possible results of that referendum.

When seeds of discrimination are sown by language, they can easily slip into our psyche, set up home there and affect our actions. We start to define whole groups of people as one, using “they” and “them” to apply prejudice.

I am White and cis female, and I am continually saddened by other White or cis people who find it ‘OK’ to share their prejudices with me, for example, about people of colour or someone who is trans or gay. They assume I will agree with them just because I’m in their ‘group’ or ‘tribe’ – and yet they have not even stopped to think that they may be insulting my friends and the people I love.

Casual comments like “Oh but I didn’t mean you” or “I’m not racist but…” are hugely damaging and reveal the degree to which we can be manipulated by hate speech or beliefs passed down to us in some way.

We are all individuals, not stereotypes. We each have a rich experience of life and cultural heritage to share. We can learn so much from each other.

Defining people by what makes them ‘other’ marginalises them even more, and its impacts can last for generations. It keeps people unemployed, poor, isolated, vilified, disadvantaged, enslaved, harassed, judged unfairly, degraded, unheard, in poor health… – instead of having the social, economic and political power that dominant groups enjoys.

7 ways to call out damaging stereotypes in language

1. If you find yourself about to use a specific word or phrase, pause and ask yourself:
– where have those words come from?
– who did you first hear use them? (A news channel? Your parents?)
– would you use those words to describe a person of your own colour, faith , gender, etc? For example, would you say “He’s White – but he’s very nice.”?

2. Get to know people who are not ‘like you’. Get to know what the world is like for them right now, what they face every day. Try to put yourself in their shoes. When we uncover our shared humanity, we realise we have similar fears, hopes and dreams. By getting to know one another we have a chance to understand one another – and see the stereotype for the empty label it is. We need to hear one another’s stories.

3. Notice how people in your own ‘group’ talk to people in other ‘groups’. If you see someone being rude or dismissive to someone and you suspect it’s because the person being treated badly looks or sounds ‘different’, call it out. Stand up for the person being marginalised.

4. In a one-to-one conversation where the person you’re talking with is using the language of stereotypes, don’t be afraid to call it out; ask them, with curiosity, to explain what they mean exactly. Then take the conversation from there.

5. Find out why people hold the views they do. Even if they hold a view that is ugly and divisive, what can you learn about that for yourself? For example, if someone expresses an Islamophobic view, find out why they hold that view and whether you also hold any views that might actually have a similar root, albeit in a different context.

6. Pay close attention to the words and phrases you hear and read in news reports and in political debates. Notice how words can be deliberately conflated: the word “immigrant” is often used with the word “illegal” to form the phrase “illegal immigrant”, and yet most immigrants in most countries have solid legal status and contribute to the country they’re in. This divisive and coded language, like “Islamic” and “extremist”, is designed to reinforce a stereotype – and label a whole group of people with a false description.

Notice these things – and you will see just how much we can all be manipulated.

One fairly obvious example is when a crime has been carried out by someone of a particular faith. In countries where the dominant religion is ‘Christian’, the religion/faith of a ‘Christian’ perpetrator will almost never be mentioned; but when a crime is committed by someone of a minority faith, that person’s faith is almost always mentioned – and yet it may have nothing at all to do with the crime.

7. Notice condescending language that has become widely accepted; For example, in English the phrase “little old lady” is sadly widely used and has connotations of a diminutive and frail older woman whose only value is comedic. There is no similar phrase for an older man.

Pay attention to the less obvious things too – for example, a protester or public speaker may be described as “extreme”, “fanatical”, “aggressive” (especially if they’re female) or “radical”, when they are actually “passionate” and “enthusiastic” about the cause they’re fighting for or the topic they’re interested in. What’s behind the choice of language? What is the speaker or writer trying to get you to believe about someone else?

We all have a responsibility to call out divisive language when we hear and see it. By allowing the public narrative to demonise others, we all lose out in the end. By doing what we can to change things now, we can gradually also change the future.


  1. Bob Howard-Spink 11 months ago

    Grreat article Angela
    You’re so right. Being aware of, or being angered by stereotyping language isn’t enough and we have to act positively to curtail and eliminate it.
    Tolerance of intolerance is a bad habit and like any habit it won’t cure itself. But the cure needs resolution.
    Rather like years ago when after many unsuccessfull attempts to quit smoking I finally succeeded by simply resolving to no longer smoke. By reminding myself that’s not what I do.
    To be honest, stereotyping is a bad habit I’ve had for 60 plus years.
    These days, I’m resolved not to stereotype people. When situations occur I remind myself that’s not what I do..

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 11 months ago

      I love that, Bob. Thanks for those insights. Yes, I think we all have to be consciously aware of patterns we easily lapse into – and when our biases are unconscious of course it’s even more important that we question our own behaviour at every point.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *