Using inclusive language shows an understanding and appreciation of people from diverse groups and backgrounds. This style guide can help you replace biased language with inclusive terms that value diversity and promote equity.
Importance of Diversity and Inclusion
Understanding and promoting inclusion grows increasingly important as our society becomes more diverse. Few people consciously wish to discriminate against others, yet many routinely use language that demonstrates bias against those of a different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identiy, age, religion, socioenconomic level, disability status, or background than their own. This diversity and inclusion style guide can help you communicate with sensitivity and respect towards others.
Race and Ethnicity
There are ways to speak and write about ethnicities that are welcoming, accepting, and inclusive. Some general guidelines:
- When writing about an individual, focus on that person. Only mention their race if it is somehow relevant to the story, like discussing an achievement or overcoming previous instances of racism.
- If you identify one person in a story as a racial minority, it is best to identify all other individuals, even if they are members of the racial majority.
- Use appropriate accents when writing out names.
When speaking about specific groups:
- The terms African American and Black are not interchangeable. Not all Black people trace their lineage to Africa or identify as African American.
- If using the term “black” to refer to a group of people, capitalize the “B” and make sure that you are referring to “Black people,” not “Blacks.”
- While Asian American is an acceptable term, it is always better to refer to someone’s specific country of origin, such as Japan or China.
- The terms American Indian and Native American refer to indigenous people of the Americas whose ancestry predates colonial settlers. The term Indians refers to people who are from the country of India.
- Hispanic means from Spanish-speaking countries, while Latino/a/x refers to people from countries in Latin America or the Caribbean. The two terms extensively overlap but are not interchangeable.
In addition to this diversity and inclusion style guide, many other resources have been developed to provide guidance. Some general guidelines:
- First, unless directed otherwise, it is always better to refer to a person as a singular “they.” Of course, most individuals will go by “he” or “she,” but you should use “they” until directed otherwise. Doing so is both inclusive and grammatically correct.
- Like race or ethnicity, only note the gender of an individual in writing or speech if it is relevant to the conversation. Otherwise, you can omit all references to gender in the text or discourse.
A relic of older ways of talking is to use terms that start or end in “man” or “men,” such as “councilmen” or “manpower.” Virtually all terms have gender-neutral ways of being utilized so that you do not need to rely on older frames of speech. As such, if at all possible, avoid using words that have a “-man” suffix. Use more inclusive terms, like “member” or “person” instead.
There are ways of referring to immigration status while remaining inclusive and welcoming. No person is ever illegal. Illegal should only refer to actions, not people. A more appropriate term is “undocumented.”
Other important tips include:
- Do not make any assumptions about a person’s legal status within the United States. If you know someone is undocumented, do not discuss this — in public or in private — without the individual’s consent.
- A refugee refers to an individual who has come to this country to avoid war, conflict, or tragedy. Moreover, a refugee cannot come from within the country. For example, Puerto Rican residents who left Puerto Rico are not refugees, as they are already U. S. citizens.
- A person seeking asylum is in the United States to flee some sort of personal danger. Their status may not have been resolved yet by legal authorities.
Our language is rapidly expanding to include more sexual orientations and gender identities, Consider the acronym LGBTQIA+:
- Queer or questioning
- Asexual or ally
No such list can be comprehensive, so the “+” signifies people and groups who identify in other ways.
People with Disabilities
The term “disabilities” is a broad one. You refer to an individual with a disability as a “person with a disability” or a “disabled person.” There is some debate within the disabilities community about which term is preferred. As always, it is better to ask someone what their preference is.
Other terms, such as “challenged” or “handicapped,” have fallen out of favor, as they imply that there is something defective with the person. Also use caution when even referring to a disabled individual in overly positive terms; treat them as you would anyone else.
One in five Americans actively suffers from some sort of mental illness. Despite the prevalence of mental illnesses, much of the language used to describe people experiencing mental illness reflects ignorance and bias. Some point to keep in mind:
- Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are medical conditions. Demanding that an individual simply “get over it” or “stop being sad” is dismissive.
- Addiction issues are physical illnesses, not moral failings.
- Avoid disparaging terms such as “crazy” or “insane,” even when referring to something that has nothing to do with mental health.
- When it comes to discussing someone’s mental illness, follow their lead and respect their privacy. Do not bring up someone’s mental illness without their permission.
Students from Low-Income Backgrounds
Language used to describe people from low-income backgrounds can reinforce barriers and stereotypes. Utilizing more sensitive language creates more inclusive work and school environments. Some general guidelines:
- Never confuse low income with other barriers, like race or ethnicity. Doing so can be deeply offensive and further ingrain stereotypes.
- When writing or speaking about low-income groups or individuals, avoid deficit-focused terms; for example, refer to “food security” rather than “food insecurity.”
- Avoid words with negative connotations; for example, use “low income” instead of “underprivileged.”
Tips for Implementing Inclusion Language at Work and School
Implementing inclusive language at work or school is easier if you keep some tips in mind:
- Practice a “people-first” method of language. People are defined by who they are, not their immutable characteristics. By preaching this philosophy, you can help ease the transition to a more inclusive language.
- Encourage your staff or classmates to consider the historical context of words and language. This may involve a broader educational effort.
- Normalize asking for pronouns and listening to members of affected groups.
- Make sure that your coworkers or classmates never minimize the experience of others — particularly when discussing language-related issues.
- Use style guides and diversity policies as a basis for a broader conversation.