Photo by Wylly Suhendra on Unsplash
6 min Read
July 7, 2020

Writing with an antiracist lens

Antiracism is the act of advancing antiracist policies and ideas that lead to racial equity in society.

It must take many different forms—both internal and external—at your nonprofit, from identifying racial inequities across teams to instituting antiracist policies and measuring their effectiveness.

Writing is just one small piece of a broader antiracist practice. We believe that you can apply an anitracist lens no matter what you’re writing about, and we hope these ideas will help you begin to do that.

A couple of notes: 

First, antiracism is a continuous effort. There is no one way to do things right. You should always be learning, trying, making mistakes, and adapting how you apply antiracism to your writing.

Second, I’m an able-bodied cis white woman. All I’ve done is learn about racism, I’ve never experienced its harmful effects. My suggestions on writing with an antiracist lens aren’t as valuable as those that people of color have contributed. I encourage you to read the resources by Black writers and other people of color linked throughout this article.

Before writing, educate yourself. In order to apply antiracism to your nonprofit’s messaging, learn about it first. If antiracism is new to you, or if you’re just starting to learn about the history of racism and all its present forms, read about it (or listen or watch) before opening your next blank document. Understanding history is critical for writing with an antiracist lens.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture created a robust tool called Talking about Race to help guide you on your journey of racial self-awareness and reflection.

Ibram X. Kendi wrote a memoir called “How to Be an Antiracist.” It’s helpful if you want to understand how his personal antiracism awakening connects to history, law, science, and more. He also offers tangible steps to resist and eliminate racial inequity in all kinds of spaces. If you’re unable to access the book, you can listen to this interview where he outlines its core ideas.

If you’re more of a visual learner, I encourage you to watch Toni Morrison’s sweeping 1993 interview on Charlie Rose where she promotes her novel, “Jazz,” and also starts to break down racism in America. I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend reading her entire body of work as well. 

Try to find your identity and beliefs within the context and history of racism. Have you benefited from racist policies? How does your race positively or negatively affect you day to day? Reflecting on questions like this should help you consciously apply an antiracist lens to your nonprofit writing—and all other areas of your life. 

Be specific and think critically. As you learn about antiracism, you’ll find that explicitly naming race is an important step toward advancing racial equity. That’s because avoiding the topic of race altogether perpetuates racism. You’ll also hopefully begin to think more critically about common racial identifiers and language and how and why they’re used.

Consider if there are places where getting specific about race or ethnicity will be relevant to your writing, being careful to avoid broad generalizations and labels. For instance, I identified my race at the beginning of this article because it’s related to the topic I’m writing about.

If you determine that getting specific is appropriate, think carefully about the words you choose. Are you using the term “people of color” when you’re really talking about Black people? Do your audiences know what “BIPOC” means and why you’re using it?

Does the hyphen in Asian-American or African-American really need to be there? What is it actually saying? Should your nonprofit elect to capitalize the “B” in Black when used as an adjective in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense and make it part of your style guide? What does that mean?

My colleague, Hannah Thomas, wrote a blog post about how to inclusively shape your organization’s voice with questions to help you start thinking critically about word choice. A resource like the Conscious Style Guide can also be useful for thinking through questions about race, as well as other traits like age, gender, sexuality, and ability. 

Discussions around race and racism are continuously evolving. It’s a smart idea to make reading about race a part of your daily routine. Consider bookmarking or signing up for newsletters from Race Forward, Colorlines, Fakequity, and the Opportunity Agenda to remain informed. 

Use words that honor humanity and power. By centering and celebrating the humanity of Black people and other people of color, you challenge racist ideas. The most basic way to do this is by using words like “people” or “person.” 

For example, in his open letter on language, Eddie Ellis, the late founder of the Center for NuLeadership on Human Justice & Healing, calls on the media, law enforcement, and public policy agencies to stop using words devoid of humanness like “offender,” “inmate,” and “felon” to describe people currently or formerly incarcerated. 

His letter is particularly powerful because he was directly impacted by mass incarceration, as were many of the staff members working at his organization. It reflects one of the best ways to elevate Black people’s humanity and power in your writing: listening.

Respectfully ask the people you’re writing about how they define themselves or what they’re experiencing in a forum that is comfortable for them and use that. Cite where the words came from, being careful not to tokenize anyone or promote the idea that one person can speak for all others.

You should also try to connect individual experiences to the policies and systems that perpetuate racism in your sector as well. And whenever you can, use your nonprofit’s platform to amplify the stories of Black people and other people of color as told in their own words.

Assess relationship dynamics. Nonprofit communications is all about building connections. One of the key places you can apply an antiracist lens to your nonprofit’s storytelling is in how relationships are described—relationships between clients and volunteers, the larger community and leadership, the roles of donors, and more.

Racism is often perpetuated subtly and unintentionally in writing. Paying close attention to how relationship dynamics are expressed in your messages can help you advance racial equity. Think critically about who is doing what, with or for whom, and why. 

While writing or reviewing your nonprofit’s messaging—especially for fundraising—ask yourself questions like: Who is the giver and who is the receiver; what are their races? What is the problem and who has it? Who is part of the solution? Is there a negative value judgment implied based on dominant white norms? Are Black people depicted as passive and white people as active?

Thinking through these questions should help you identify if you’re using a white savior narrative in your writing. For more information on white saviorism and how to avoid perpetuating it, I recommend turning to the No White Saviors advocacy campaign.

Slow down. A sense of urgency is a common characteristic of white supremacy culture that can show up in organizations. Writing with an antiracist lens entails slowing down, understanding that things take longer than anyone expects, and allowing time for critical thinking and inclusive processes.

Instead of publishing something as soon as you’re done writing it, try letting it sit for a day or two in your drafts. Return to it and edit with a renewed awareness and purpose. You can also ask a colleague to read it with an antiracist lens, being mindful of the time and effort it takes, especially if writing isn’t part of their job.

Words are powerful, but actions matter the most. We hope these ideas help you apply an antiracist lens into your nonprofit writing, and inspire you to embed racial equity in deeper ways at your organization and in our society.