Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Being more inclusive with your references

We all have to stop assuming everyone understands language, or references. It’s alienating.

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column.

I’m not a historian, linguist, or pop culture pro. But I have been on the receiving end of puzzled looks and shady comments when I question what classic songs, artists or shows my colleagues are referring to.

Friends, I am here to issue a reminder that not all of us grew up in the same culture. As we work on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in newsrooms, we need to understand that some language or references can be alienating for people who don’t have similar career paths or life experiences.

I didn’t grow up watching “The Brady Bunch” or listening to Bon Jovi. (I have yet to watch Golden Girls 😬.) My parents and I came to this country in the early ‘90s, and we were on survival mode well into my teens. I also grew up Christian and the car radio was always set to worship songs or news radio that brought traffic updates (because, you know, L.A.). I discovered my definition of culture after we got cable and became glued to MTV and MTV3 for hours — AMA about mid-2000s reggaetón.

My experience as a gay immigrant in this country has pushed me to learn two worlds — what I’ve chosen to take in as my culture and the “mainstream.”

I’ve seen other BIPOC journalists point to similar alienating experiences on Twitter. We’ve also exchanged glances at news meetings when we can’t untangle certain references. And during this WFH situation, it hasn’t been easy to read the room like it was before. We have googled furiously to understand what our colleagues meant.

It’s tiring. It feels like we, people of color, are being othered.

As I grew in my career, I began to question why we speak like this: Who defines what is well known? Why is it a thing? When does our workplace language become inclusive?

Inclusive language “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities,” according to the Linguistic Society of America.

(+ If you’re not already doing this in your coverage plans, headlines and share lines, then not quite sure what you’re doing!)

I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had supportive mentors, colleagues and friends. They’ve always gut-checked me and told me to trust my voice. It took a bit, but I now ask, “Who is that, what does that mean, what are you referring to?” Some journalists may not feel they have the space to ask these questions though.

This column is for them.

Your Burning Questions


I’m a BIPOC and I find these situations frustrating. Any advice?


I hope you know that you deserve to be in an accepting place and are surrounded with people who are supportive. (Read Emma’s column about imposter syndrome for some realness.) Each situation can be different, but here are some actionable items you can think about:

  • ASK THEM TO EXPLAIN. It can start with a simple question, “I didn’t catch that. What do you mean?”
  • LEAN ON SOMEONE. When I need to check my gut, I reach out to other BIPOC in the newsroom. Unfortunately, you might be the only one though. I also have friends of color in other workplaces whom I can express myself to. (Managers who are BIPOC, we need to support each other!)


My intention isn’t to alienate anyone. What can I do to avoid doing that?


  • DON’T say things like, “Were you hiding under a rock when this happened?” or give someone a side eye for not knowing what you’re talking about.
  • DO try to explain what you mean.
  • LISTEN and let others express themselves or make space if the extrovert is always talking. It’s good to learn from others’ experiences.

Brian De Los Santos
Editor of LAist

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Kim. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

Reading List


  • Brian De Los Santos

    Brian De Los Santos is the editor of LAist, part of the Southern California Public Radio newsroom. He previously led digital strategy at The Desert Sun in Palm Springs and was the West Coast social lead for the USA TODAY Network. He contributed to the LA Times’ coverage of the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack, which earned a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Brian is a product of NAHJ and ONA, two organizations that have helped him with mentorship and finding supportive colleagues. He is passionate about communities and finding ways to bring content of intersectional experiences to readers, viewers, phone scrollers, listeners. Brian lives in his favorite city — L.A.— with his doggo Bigotes.


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