One of the things that fascinates me about social justice movements is the rapidity with which language evolves. This can sometimes become a pitfall, as people are penalised for not knowing the latest language and not using the most current terms, but it’s also amazing evidence of how communities craft and shape new terms for themselves. We live in a society where oppressors are usually in charge, and they do the defining, and this can be a particularly serious issue when it comes to people living at the social margins, those who aren’t allowed to define themselves in a culture that wants to normalise certain identities and Other others.

Race is one of the areas where this is extremely striking. What do we call people who are not white? Why do we white people feel the need to position ourselves as a default and everyone else as someone who needs to be defined? Why isn’t ‘Asian’ the default, or ‘Chinese’? How would our language change if ‘non-Japanese’ was used as a descriptor in Western culture and thought? The term ‘people of colour’ is often used as an umbrella term, but not everyone who is not white identifies under that umbrella or likes that term. Some people prefer nonwhite, while others prefer to be explicitly identified by their race or by other terms: all are expressions of identity, and all are valid.

‘People of colour’ as a general blanket term for people who don’t come from the same racial background I do is generally recognised as acceptable in many communities. I frequently use it, when I don’t have guidance on how a specific person or group wants to be referred to — I may talk, for example, about wage disparities between whites and people of colour, or about the fact that trans women of colour are more likely to be homeless, more likely to experience abuse, and more likely to have trouble accessing transition services.

But we must avoid the trap of using blanket terms too much. Because sometimes, it’s not about ‘people of colour,’ but a specific racial group, and we should be specific. Rather than saying ‘x artist appropriated y from people of colour,’ we need to state ‘x artist appropriate y from the Black community.’ Because ‘people of colour’ and ‘Black community’ are not synonymous. When we’re talking about something specific, we shouldn’t be using an umbrella term, because it lacks precision, and the resulting discussion lacks awareness and nuance.

Broadly sweeping people with one generic brush isn’t just imprecise — it also strikes me as rather patronising and offensive, and it betrays a lack of interest in the depths and specifics of a subject. If I as a writer can’t even be bothered to distinguish in depth which community I’m talking about, why should people bother to read the piece? What’s going to be in it for them? Members of the community affected in particular have no real incentive to interact with the piece, because I’ve made it clear with my careless framing that I wasn’t interested in completing even a baseline of research, or treating my subjects with respect.

Umbrella terms are useful when we are talking broadly about sociocultural trends. They can also be useful when they are being used internally within communities as an expression of solidarity — thus, I say ‘disabled people’ because it encompasses people with a variety of impairments and sociocultural experiences. But I wouldn’t talk generically about ‘disabled people’ when I was covering mental health issues, or when I was discussing developmental impairments, because those are issues specific to a subset of the larger community I’m covering. (And, for that matter, not all people who might be forcibly labeled as ‘disabled’ by outside observers would identify that way, just as can be seen with some individuals and ‘people of colour.’)

They are not to be used, however, when we’re not speaking broadly, unless we want to make it look we don’t care about the details of the communities we are (hopefully) working in and with. Indeed, when I encounter umbrella terms being used when specificity would be better suited, I cannot help but think that the person using them is speaking about people, not with them, is working around communities, instead of being directly involved in them, and I am less likely to heed what that person has to say.

I am guilty of this myself, which is one reason I have it on my mind. It’s a good reminder, when using umbrella terms, to take a moment to consider about whether the use is appropriate, which is something I try to do (and sometimes fail at). When I talk about ‘people of colour and nonwhite people’ (in an attempt to encompass as many people as possible), is that really what I mean? Or do I mean ‘Black people’ or ‘Indonesian people’ or ‘South American people’? Do I mean ‘Asian’ or ‘Southeast Asian’ specifically? Who am I talking about, and, for that matter, am I talking about them, or with them? Am I using due care and respect in the formulation and presentation of a piece?

Have I turned to members of the community itself to see how they identify and to determine how they might want to see an issue covered? Have I heeded the way members of that community are engaging with the issue and each other, and am I paying attention to how they’re identifying? Because if I’m failing at these pretty basic journalistic measures, it’s likely that there’s a whole lot more that I’m getting wrong.