June 4, 2021

A version of this column first appeared in this week’s edition of the NPR Public Editor newsletter. Poynter’s Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, also serves as NPR’s Public Editor.

“Stop using the made-up word Latinx.”

This note, delivered via Twitter to the NPR Public Editor team, prompted a rich conversation about how journalists find the language to tell stories about racial justice and social equity — issues that pervade American life.

The reporters on this team, Kayla Randall and Amaris Castillo, are passionate journalists who’ve spent their early careers elevating voices that are often left out of the news, while at the same time embracing the words they use to describe themselves: Black. Latina.

There are so many lessons about journalism in this thread. But what’s more interesting is the journey. Here’s how it went down.

Amaris Castillo, writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor team and Poynter contributor (left) and Kayla Randall, editorial researcher and writer for the NPR Public Editor team (right). (Right photo by Darrow Montgomery)

Kayla Randall: “Code Switch” has a wonderful episode about these umbrella terms we use to talk about massive groups of people, specifically “people of color” (POC) and “Black, Indigenous, and people of color” (BIPOC).

Amaris Castillo: I took from that “Code Switch” episode that being lumped together in this way will make us reflect more on our collective influence and make us pause and think about each other’s struggles a bit more than if we are broken off into our different identifiers, which still exist.

Latinx is an alternative and gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent. It’s risen in popularity in recent years and is used by some news outlets, corporations and more. According to a December 2019 bilingual survey by the Pew Research Center, just 3% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino use Latinx to describe themselves.

If someone asks me, I say I’m Latina. Latinx came to my consciousness a few years ago. I was like, “OK, wait. What is this? This is a very clunky word. It’s harder to pronounce. What does it mean?” I understand and respect that it’s meant to be inclusive of all genders.

I have a few friends who use it. Many don’t. I have been Latina for so long. This is me. And I just want to feel free to continue being Latina, you know? I think we should all be afforded that space to identify as we feel most comfortable.

Randall: I agree. For me, I’m a Black American woman, so in a journalistic, big-picture sense, I might be referred to as a “woman of color” or “person of color.”

I understand why it’s important for people to join together, to work as a collective for the common goal of equity and creating positive change. At the same time, I really wish we didn’t have to constantly lump ourselves together and label ourselves to fight for equity, when the fight is exhausting enough. But racism and prejudice are designed to divide people. So a term like “people of color” is meant to unite.

Still, being called a “person of color” is vague and erases my specific identity and culture, which is particularly damaging when it’s used unnecessarily. In the “Code Switch” episode we referenced earlier, someone said they don’t like the term “people of color” because they feel it’s a way to avoid saying “Black.” I totally understand that criticism. We should be as specific as possible when we’re talking. We should say what we mean.

Also, new terms seem to pop up overnight. There will always be dissent on terms like this because no group is monolithic. When it comes to writing about identity, we know that there are some clear, wrong answers, words that we don’t use today and words that we should never have used. But when you try to distill entire cultures, heritages and civilizations down to a couple of words, there’s not really an accurate way to do that.

Castillo: Yes, and then the association with said words can turn negative or derogatory. It feels like a revolving door. For the record, I am comfortable with being called a woman of color (or POC), but I do like specificity: I am Latina, or Dominican American. You can even call me a child of immigrants.

This is when my mind veers to the journalist. Should journalists now be asking every source, “How do you identify?” Because as someone who has worked in local news, I did not make that a habit. It’s shifting my understanding of what reporters should do when interviewing sources. I read that BIPOC first surfaced on the Internet in 2013, but didn’t come to prominence until last year when George Floyd was murdered. After that, I saw BIPOC everywhere — in articles and by corporations trying to convey that they’re inclusive.

I think it’s a good practice to start asking people how they identify because everyone has a different way of viewing this.

Randall: The first questions we can ask are why and how is the person’s identity relevant to the story? There are many stories in which the personal identities of the sources are irrelevant, right? Once you determine that identity is relevant, then it’s important for journalists to avoid making assumptions. There are so many ways in which a person can identify, and the best way for the journalist to find out is to simply ask the person — and then actually listen to them.

Also, I’ve seen stories that single out certain sources by their race or gender, but not all of them, without explanation. It creates an otherhood. So journalists need to assess and make sure they are living up to their own standards of fairness when it comes to identifying people.

Castillo: Definitely. Journalists can’t call attention to one source’s race and not another. I think this kind of feeds into our desire to want to know where someone’s from, instead of asking how they identify.

I have been guilty of that. And, it’s happened to me, too. I was out reporting at a scene where this guy had barricaded himself in a trailer, and this older white man approached me. I had my press badge and my notebook, so I was clearly there to do a job. He started talking to me, and then he was like, “So where are you from?” Oh my goodness. That is such a loaded question. It means “You don’t look like you’re from here (i.e., you’re not white).” I was like, “Oh, I live in Tampa.” He looked at me and was like, “But you’re not a Florida cracker, are you?” And I thought, “OMG. First of all, that term is also derogatory in and of itself.” He basically was saying I’m not white.

I gave in, finally, because I just wanted to get out of the situation. I told him I was born in New York and my parents are from the Dominican Republic. He looked satisfied with my response, which was that my parents were not born here. I felt othered.

Randall: And feeling othered like that is often jarring and hurtful. So journalists, when writing broadly about people as groups, especially groups they don’t identify with, can be imperfect and imprecise, if they aren’t careful. It can feel distastefully monolithic.

Castillo: How can journalists write about whole groups that are themselves splintered by how they identify? There will never be a consensus. But specificity will always win. Are we talking about Cubans, or Dominicans, or Puerto Ricans? Because there is a difference. Are we talking about Canadians, or Black Canadians? It depends on context and, like you said earlier, Kayla, asking how the person’s identity is relevant to the story.

Randall: Identity is personal and individual; it means different things to different people. It’s indefinable in so many ways. It’s important to really evaluate our work and its purpose.

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Kayla Randall is an editorial researcher and writer for the NPR Public Editor team. Follow the team’s work here: https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/
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