Slaves or Enslaved Persons? The Reason Behind the Shift in Terms


Should you use slaves or enslaved persons when referring to the people sold and imprisoned in slavery? Here’s why more are now choosing the latter.

It would be an understatement to say the death of George Floyd caused a discussion about race. One of the latest discussions involves a debate over slaves or enslaved persons as a proper way to discuss slavery.

But you’d be wrong to assume the debate over avoiding the term slave is new.

Over at The Chicago Tribune, writer Eric Zorn points out it’s been brewing for a quarter-century, “mostly in academia,” he adds. The debate focuses on whether the term slave is “a needlessly dehumanizing word.”

It’s a lot like the argument to call an “autistic child” a “child with autism” instead. It’s meant to put the person first and the condition as something they have, not something that defines them.

In the same respect, calling a person a slave does seem to remove their humanity. It labels them as a thing, which, of course, is how slave owners regarded them.

Calling them an enslaved person, however, shows they’re a person who has been pulled into bondage. To put it another way, Slate explains it reminds us that the people the term describes are “humans first, commodities second.” (That might be confusing since the term enslaved persons puts the human part second and the condition of being a commodity first as an adjective. But still, you get the idea.)

Our national conversation on race is likely upsetting to some. Some people really dislike change. And some particularly dislike change they feel they can label as “political correctness.”

But this isn’t political correctness. Those brought to this country as enslaved people did not choose to be in that situation. The best thing about using the term is that it reminds the rest of us of that very important fact.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.