Words and Phrases That Sting: “Nation of Immigrants” and “Hold Down the Fort”

Words and Phrases That Sting: “Nation of Immigrants” and “Hold Down the Fort”

Last week, I wrote about a couple of phrases that might not seem offensive on the surface but have the potential to make some people uncomfortable. Here’s my second post in what will be a series of words and phrases that sting. Often, such expressions are problematic not because they are obviously insensitive but because they’re accompanied by historical context that some might find unsettling.

For example, “the United States is a nation of immigrants.” It’s an expression we’ve heard multiple times—because it’s true. This country was built on the backs of people who have come from all over the world. But the statement easily conceals another truth: Long before Europeans—or even Canadians—crossed oceans, rivers, and land, Native Americans had been living here. They are not immigrants, nor are they descendants of immigrants. So you can see why the expression might make some of them queasy.

As a group, Native Americans have suffered centuries of oppression. Despite what we all may have learned in third grade about a diverse array of people joyously sitting around a turkey, the reality is that the immigrants who first founded this nation didn’t exactly embrace the indigenous people they came upon. Whereas hundreds of years ago, the effects of colonization ravaged local tribes, today’s Native Americans are largely ignored by much of the American public. As if they aren’t part of the American public at all.

Meanwhile, another idiom, “hold down the fort,” is also fraught with meanings that may not initially come to mind. Usually, the phrase refers to watching your home or workplace while someone is away. Historically, though, it alludes to guarding against attacking Native Americans.

“As with any phraseology that has evolved into present-day communications, the ‘back story’ of how a phrase acquired its meaning can influence the meaning itself and impose an entirely different conceptual framework to the communication than intended,” wrote the U.S. State Department’s chief diversity officer John M. Robinson, specifically about phrases like “hold down the fort.” He added that “this isn’t about their historical validity; instead, it is an opportunity to remember that our choice of wording affects our professional environment.”

Does this mean that you’re a horrible racist if you ask me, or even a Native American, to “hold down the fort”? Of course not. But at the same time, words do not exist in a vacuum, and depending on the context, it’s important to choose language that doesn’t needlessly offend people.

After all, we are a nation of many types of individuals. We can all do better to remind ourselves of that more often.

We would love to hear from you. What words and phrases have you heard that might be insensitive to certain groups?

About Mary-Frances Winters

Mary-Frances Winters, president and founder of The Winters Group, Inc. is a master strategist with over 30 years experience in strategic planning, change management, diversity, organization development, training and facilitation, systems thinking and qualitative and quantitative research methods. She has extensive experience in working with senior leadership teams to drive organizational change. Described by clients as highly creative, collaborative, visionary and results oriented, she is a sought after keynote speaker and workshop leader.

One comment

  1. Regarding the phrase, “a nation of immigrants” not only is it offensive to Native Americans, as an African American i find it offensive as well. Why, you might ask? Africans were brought here as slaves, not as immigrants. Phrases such as that serve to minimize the continual negative effects slavery has had on Black progress in the US while serving to mitigate white responsibility to address the effects of systemic and structural racism

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