Detroit Discussion Do’s and Don’ts



Last month, I helped convene a conscientious crowd to explore the question “What is Jewish Detroit?” The Ann Arbor symposium — hosted at a neutral (read: equitably inconvenient) location by Michigan’s Jewish Communal Leadership Program — was rich in life lessons and lox, cultural context and capers. As we’ve come to expect in any Jewish conversation, the opinions outnumbered the participants. To my knowledge, neither the onions nor opinions led to tears.

Like any question worth asking, “What is Jewish Detroit?” begat not tidy answers, but more questions.

My task was to reflect on the question, “What language do you use to talk about Detroit and Jewish involvement in Detroit?” I talk about each a lot, a result both of talking too much generally and of the depth and dynamism of our communities.

In my experience, what we say can be amplified or undermined based on how we say it. Words and phrases we think directly denote what we are trying to articulate can have complex connotations for different audiences. Without getting tongue tied by political correctness, we can work toward conversations that will lead to positive actions, unhampered by negative reactions.

With the caveat that this guide is mine and mine alone – and without annotation – here are some do’s and don’ts, humbly submitted for your consideration.

Do Say:
6 Mile.
The Boulevard.
Kresge’s or Kmart’s.
Party Store.
And, of course, pop.

Do say: Opportunity. Don’t say: Blank canvas.
Do say: Dynamic. Don’t say: Renaissance.
Do say: Urban planning. Don’t say: Urban renewal.
Do say: Detroit. Don’t say: Downtown, if you mean the whole city.
Or, if applicable, do say: Downtown, Midtown, Corktown, Greektown, Mexicantown, Poletown.
Or, instead of Midtown, say: Cass Corridor, New Center, Brush Park, Cultural Center, Wayne State, Woodbridge.
Do say: Neighborhood: Don’t say: Inner city.
Don’t say: Ghetto.
Do say: RenCen. Don’t say: CoPa.
Do say: Lafayette. Don’t say: American.
Do say: The city limits. Don’t say: 8 Mile.
Do say: Nonprofit. Don’t say: Charity.
Do say: Underserved. Don’t say: Underprivileged.
Do say: Initiative. Don’t say: Project.
Do say: Partner. Don’t say: Adopt.
Do say: This is the Motor City. Don’t say: This is the Motor City — why would anyone want to take a bus?
Do say: Public transit. Don’t say: Mass transportation.
Do say: City kids. Don’t say: Urban youth.
Do say: Graduation rate. Don’t say: Dropout rate.
Do say: Cycle of poverty. Don’t say: Culture of poverty.
Do say: I’m from Detroit. Or I’m from Metro Detroit. Don’t say: I’m from outside Detroit.
Do say: We can empathize with oppression. Don’t say: Well, we were discriminated against, too, and we worked hard and got ahead.
Do say: Riots or civil unrest or rebellion or revolution or whatever you think characterizes Detroit in the summer of 1967. But if someone has a different name or take, don’t call him out — buy him a beer.
Do say: Black. Or African American. Don’t say — even in unmixed company or facetiously or to yourself – shvartze.
Don’t say: Kwame.
Don’t say: Coleman.
Do say: Invest in and engage with. Don’t say: Revive, reinvent or revitalize.
Do say: With Detroit. Don’t say: For Detroit.
Do say: Love. Don’t say: Save.
Do: Talk about Detroit.
Don’t: Talk at Detroit.

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