When you say “people,” who do you mean?

When you’re talking about social-justice issues, and you want to refer to a particular group or kind of people, I recommend being careful to refer specifically to the kind of people that you mean, rather than just saying “people.”

(…This note is primarily addressed to people who have relatively more privilege, and especially to us white people; I don’t see the word “people” used generically as often by people who have relatively less privilege.)


For example:

In diversity/equity/inclusion discussions at work, I fairly often encounter remarks like this:

“It’s okay if the discussion makes people uncomfortable.”

In that context, the person who’s speaking (usually a white person) generally means something like “it’s okay if the discussion makes people who have more privilege feel uncomfortably aware of their privilege.” But this particular phrasing could just as easily be used to mean something like “it’s okay if the discussion includes discriminatory remarks, and thereby makes people with less privilege feel uncomfortable.”

In this particular context, I can usually be pretty sure sure that they meant the former rather than the latter. But there’s always a little uncertainty for me, which could be resolved if the speaker were more specific about which people they were referring to.

And that context is far from the only situation where I see this issue; that’s just one example.


There’s also another, more insidious, aspect to this phrasing issue:

If you use the unmodified word “people” when you really mean (for example) “white people,” then you’re implying that the default person is white. If you furthermore never use the unmodified word “people” when you really mean (for example) “Black people,” then you’re implying even more strongly that people who aren’t white are something different from ordinary default people. You may even be implying that people who aren’t white aren’t people at all.

So whenever you’re tempted to use a general word like “people” in this kind of discussion, pause and think about which people in particular you’re referring to, and try to be more specific about that.

I feel like the practice of making myself be more specific about what people I mean can also help clarify my thinking, and can help me say what I’m trying to say more precisely and clearly, and can sometimes help me recognize when I’m not noticing my own privilege.

There may well be times in social-justice contexts when “people” (without any kind of modifier) is the right word to use. But most of the time, I think it’s not.


PS: This issue is also closely tied to the question of who the speaker’s assumed audience is.

I regularly see social-justice-related articles and posts that are addressed to a “you” without specifying who the “you” is—and in many of those cases, it gradually becomes clear that the “you” is (for example) white people. But the white author took it for granted (probably without consciously thinking about it) that of course the only people who would be reading this piece would be white people.

So even if the piece doesn’t use the word “people,” it can run into the same kind of issues that I’m talking about.

Join the Conversation