Oh, how we love, love, love good metaphors here at Nonprofit Marketing Guide! A good metaphor is a wonderful way to connect a new concept to something that people are already familiar with, making it that much easier to absorb the new idea. The right metaphor can be extraordinarily helpful in communicating a message.

We love them so much, we wrote an e-book about metaphors nonprofits can use.

But, of course, not all metaphors are a good fit for your work. Many come from dark and oppressive periods in our history, especially those that are anti-Black at their core.

You may have seen, for example, the news that Twitter and other tech companies will stop using phrases like

  • Blacklist for malicious websites and whitelist for safe emails. Terms like Exclude/Include or Deny/Allow will be used instead.
  • Black Hat for malicious hackers and White Hat for good developers hacking to make software better. Using Ethical/Unethical is a better choice in this case.
  • Master for a main machine and Slave for machines controlled by the main machine. Better substitutions include Leader/Follower, Active/Standby, or Primary/Secondary depending on the context.

While these are mostly tech terms, it’s worth thinking about the terminology you use in your own professional space. Are there terms where Black and White aren’t simply colors, but convey much more than color through their metaphorical meanings? If so, you need to stop using them.

It’s also worth Googling the origin of words and metaphors you use frequently. For example, I checked on the term”Cake Walk” as I coordinate one at our local farmers market as a fall fundraiser. It’s also a staple of school fundraisers and carnivals. I was also curious why the word “cakewalk” means something easy.

And, sure enough . . .

“The cakewalk was a pre-Civil War dance originally performed by slaves on plantation grounds. The uniquely American dance was first known as the “prize walk”; the prize was an elaborately decorated cake. Hence, “prize walk” is the original source for the phrases “takes the cake” and “cakewalk.”

The Extraordinary Story Of Why A ‘Cakewalk’ Wasn’t Always Easy

So should I call the fundraiser something else? I am seriously considering it, even though what we do today, mostly with kids, is a very different activity than the origin story.

If you know of other metaphors based on racial stereotypes or with oppressive histories that are frequently used in the nonprofit sector, let us know. We may update the Metaphors e-book this year. We already have a section on worn-out metaphors (such as building bridges and helping hands). We could add a new section to include examples with racist origins too.