Language Matters: Recognizing Black History Month

A Brief Overview of Black History Month

During his studies, Carter G. Woodson recognized the dearth of information on Black Americans in the nation’s history. So, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, ASALH). In 1926, he created the Negro History Week to share how Black Americans played important roles in the creation of the country. Woodson chose a week in February to correspond with President Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass’s birthdays, as both men were seen as symbols of freedom. Then, in 1976, President Gerald Ford extended the observation to a full month. Since then, every U.S. president has issued proclamations recognizing Black History month and endorsed the themes of ASALH.

Black History Month is a time to celebrate, acknowledge and honor the contributions of Black Americans. It is also a time to pause and acknowledge the Black experience in the United States. As we pause, awareness of structural and systemic racism is growing. It is a time when we can examine how our language shapes how we think about our work, and how it impacts those around us. This work needs to continue both inside and outside of the homelessness field. A good place to start is by using the most inclusive language in our work and personal life – both around race and around other equity topics.

What’s in a name?

Let’s make changes in our language that honor a person’s dignity, demonstrate respect, and offer hope, while combatting the stigma often associated with homelessness. Here are some suggestions relevant to the work of ending homelessness and the populations served:

Refer to people experiencing homelessness using person-centered language. For example, this would mean referring to someone as a “person experiencing homelessness” rather than a “homeless person.” The former phrase indicates a person who is experiencing a specific situation—being unhoused. Referring to homelessness as something that is experienced, rather than attaching it to the person as a defining characteristic, highlights that it is something that can be changed or overcome.


  • Stereotypes can perpetuate stigma, which can increase the shame and embarrassment around experiencing homelessness. And shame can prevent people from seeking help. Stereotypes can also increase discrimination, violence, and hate crimes against people who are experiencing homelessness, especially older adults and women.

Use names or categories like “older adults” or “older persons” that are grounded in building a better perception of aging.


  • Avoid using terms such as “elderly” or “senior citizen,” which are considered “othering” terms because they connote a stereotype. Such language suggests that members of the group are not part of society, but rather a group apart (see When It Comes to Older Adults, Language Matters). The term “elderly” is also an adjective, and the word often implies decline and can come across as ageist. Since not everyone is a U.S. citizen, the word “senior citizen” can also be exclusionary.

Consider that words like “elder” and “senior” have various connotations and use appropriately. It does not necessarily refer to a person of advanced age; rather, these terms may refer to a person who has earned respect in their community, someone who is seen as a leader. Senior can refer to a classification in U.S. secondary and post-secondary education.

Respect a person’s ancestry. For example, Hispanic refers to a person with origins from a country whose primary language is Spanish. Latino (and its variations) tend to refer to a person with origins from Latin America, i.e., from South or Central America.

Un-handicap your language. Terms used for people living with disabilities can perpetuate stereotypes. Humanizing phrases emphasize the person. For example, use “person living with a disability” rather than “disabled person.”

Replace gendered language with gender-inclusive language. Use of gender identity terms and pronouns is a way to signal courtesy and acceptance.

Use language that avoids heteronormative norms and embraces all sexual orientations. Use terms like spouse or partner rather than husband or wife.

Learning and Growing

While the terms above are offered as suggestions, we may make missteps despite our best intentions. When in doubt, ask a person how they would like to be referred to, replace assumptions with curiosity, and swap judgment with acceptance. The more we ensure our language is inclusive, the more we can learn from each other and continue equitable progress throughout the homelessness field and beyond.

In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to share one final sentiment taken from an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

(Thanks to my colleague Josh Johnson for sharing this quote).

Online Course Available through the Alliance’s Center for Learning