Do say brown? Don’t say brown?

Thought Pieces

February 28, 2022

A few months ago, my 5-year-old son was identifying one of his classmates for me and he referred to her skin colour as ‘brown’. Panic. I felt a wave of parental pressure descending as I realised I didn’t know if this was an acceptable description or if I should correct him.

Naturally, I googled it, and this didn’t help – there was no clarity on whether it was acceptable. So, I asked my business partner Holly. She confirmed quickly, almost slightly puzzled: “my skin is brown, why wouldn’t you say that?” It was clear for her, but we doubted whether everyone would feel the same.

Whoopi Goldberg was suspended for 2 weeks from her job on ABC network last week after her comments on The View program. She contended that rather than an issue of race, the Holocaust was a matter of ‘man’s inhumanity to man, involving white people killing white people’. Her comments were incorrect, the Holocaust was very much an issue of race, and she promptly apologised and corrected herself, appreciating now that it was about both. Her comments were not felt to be anti-Semitic, but as a person whose intention was to educate on the Holocaust she could certainly have been more accurate with her words.

Her suspension troubles me. Inclusion topics such as race, gender, religion, sexuality, and disability are complex and it is absolutely our duty to be caring and conscious with our language and to keep abreast of the changing socially acceptable descriptions (inclusion depends on it). But what message does it send if we punish well-intentioned people who get it wrong? We already live in a world where some people whisper the word ‘black’ because they’re uncertain if it’s the right thing to say or not.

Modern leadership articles passionately advocate for psychological safety, a term which refers to when people feel they can speak freely and fearlessly, without concern of repercussion. If we don’t know the ‘right’ thing to say, we must ask and learn, and when we get it wrong, we must learn too. It’s helping no one if we feel we can’t discuss appropriate, socially acceptable language unless we have a PhD in the subject.

Let’s not use punishment for singular transgressions – doing so will ruin psychological safety and will impede progress for everyone. Save punishment for repeated poor behaviour and unwillingness to learn and adapt into a wonderfully diverse and inclusive world.
And please let me know your thoughts on whether referring to someone’s skin colour as brown is acceptable.

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