Why Bias-Free Language Is Important to Foreign Clients
Many lawyers and their staff may not understand the importance of using culturally sensitive language when dealing with, or marketing to, foreign born individuals. It is essential for firms servicing a diverse population to recognize that foreign-born clients are generally extremely proud of their heritage and ethnic identity. Thus, foreign-born individuals typically resent being confused with, or grouped with, other ethnic groups to which they do not belong.
For example, many Spanish-speaking individuals do not consider themselves to be “Latino” or “Hispanic,” but as Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Argentinean. Even though the term “Hispanic” might be technically correct for describing people from Spanish speaking countries, it can be offensive to some because it “homogenizes” many diverse groups of people and fails to recognize the unique characteristics of a particular group. It could be offensive to some because it was coined by the U.S. government and does not have the benefit of “being self-chosen.”
Likewise, the term “Oriental” is considered by some to be an ethnic slur. In fact, Washington State banned the use of the word “Oriental” in state documents in 2002 and New York State followed in 2009. According to one law professor, “the word ‘Oriental’ is not inherently negative.” However, “[i]t’s associated with a time period when Asians had a subordinate status” and is often associated with exoticism and stereotypes like geisha girls and emasculated men.” According to Wu, “’Oriental’ is like the word “negro.’ It conjures up an era.” Similarly, although the word “Negro” was once preferred to “black,” it fell out of favor in the 1970s because it was said to conjure up thoughts of segregation and slavery.
In May of 2016, President Obama signed a bill which eliminated the use of the terms “Oriental” and “Negro” in federal law. The legislation passed both the House and Senate unanimously. The bill, which was aimed to “modernize” federal law, will allow two references to “Orientals” and “Negros” in the U.S. code from the 1970s to be replaced with the words “Asian Americans” and “African Americans.” According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who led New York state’s effort in 2009 to remove the same language from state documents, “[t]he term ‘Oriental’ has no place in federal law and at long last this insulting and outdated term will be gone for good.” The law will also replace the term “Spanish-speaking” with “Hispanic,” “Indian” with “Native American,” and “Eskimo” and “Aleut” with “Alaska Natives.”
Finally, it is important for lawyers and their staff to understand that only certain Middle Eastern people should be called Arabs and that the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are not interchangeable. Most Muslims are not, in fact, Arab, and many Arabs are not Muslim. Similarly, ethnic Armenians or Kazakhs who originate from the former Soviet Union resent being referred to as “Russians” even though they may speak Russian fluently.
In sum, careful attention must be paid to not lumping groups of people with varying languages, cultures, and histories into one generic term. Lawyers should endeavor to take the time to research their client or prospective client’s ethnicity and, if in doubt, find out how the individual with whom they are dealing would like to be identified. By doing so, firms will demonstrate their respect and sensitivity towards the particular population they are planning to serve.
Next, special attention must be given to any marketing or advertising materials that target foreign-born individuals so as to avoid offending those the firm seeks to attract as clients.
Finally, lawyers should be sure to use the proper and preferred terminology when interacting with others on social media as mistakes in labeling people can become an instant embarrassment for the firm with long-lasting effects.