Language is always changing. Watch popular movies from 20, 10, or even five years, and you’ll probably hear a word or two that are now widely understood to be offensive. Sometimes, you’ll say something, and a trusted friend will tell you the word is offensive. But how were you supposed to know? Well, here are some words to get you started in building a more inclusive vocabulary.
Use this: Gender-neutral descriptions
NOT THIS: Gendered language
Try this fun exercise: talk to a coworker, a friend, your partner, or even a pet, and tell them about what you did this weekend, but the trick is to not use any gendered language. At first thought, it’s not that hard, but in practice, you’ll discover a lot of words we use in everyday conversation are gendered.
Words like waitress/waiter, hostess/host, actor/actress, policeman, and congressman are all gendered words that crop up in everyday conversation. So why should we work to change that? First, some of these gendered words come from a history of society’s understanding of a man’s place and a woman’s place in society.
Men were thought to perform more hands-on, rugged jobs, such as firefighting and electrical work, and women were associated with more serving, nurturing jobs, such as waiting tables and in-flight service. This historical understanding also assumes the gender of the person in question, which you might not know just by looking at the person. Using gender-neutral language will allow for a subtle mind-shift for you and the folks you speak to.
Use this: LGBTQ+
Not this: GLBT, slurs, etc.
LGBTQ+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. It’s used as an inclusive label for the queer community. Though GLBT used to be considered the most inclusive label for the community, it positioned gay men as the front of the movement, leaving lesbian, bisexual, and trans folks—who had less privilege—behind. It also erased folks who might not identify with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans labels. With the use of LGBTQ+ instead, it positions folks with less privilege at the front of the community and allows for your language to be more inclusive and intersectional.
Use this: They/them
Not this: He/She, he or she, it, that, etc.
Haven’t asked someone for their desired pronouns yet? No problem! The best practice is to use gender-neutral pronouns until you’ve had a chance to ask. If you’re a stickler for grammar and are used to using “he or she” or “he/she” as a placeholder for a gender-neutral pronoun, challenge yourself to use “they” instead, even if it feels grammatically incorrect. This is a better option for a few reasons:
“He/she” used to be a slur used to label trans folks,
“He/she” or “he or she” fails to acknowledge trans/non-binary/gender-fluid folks.
In fact, AP Style already confirmed “they/them” qualifies as a singular pronoun now, so you will be grammatically correct AND inclusive when you speak. It’s a win-win.
Use this: “That’s wild!” / “That’s ridiculous!”
Not this: “That’s crazy!” / “That’s insane!”
Words like crazy, nuts, insane, psycho, etc. are words that were historically used against people with mental/cognitive disabilities that have now crept into everyday conversation. That alone is enough reason to start replacing these words in your vocabulary, but let’s dig deeper.
Folks with disabilities are hugely marginalized by our society—with the expectation of productivity in the workplace, the waning access to healthcare, lack of curb-cuts on sidewalks, etc.—but they make up a large percentage of our population. According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults will experience mental illness in a given year. For such a large group of people, it’s shocking we still use this language on a daily basis.
Use this: People of Color
Not this: Colored people, other racial slurs
For some reading this, you’ll think it’s silly that “racial slurs” is listed here because it’s so obvious not to use racial slurs, but let's dig into what this means.
It’s widely known that some racial slurs are still used by the communities they impacted (i.e., the black community and the N-word). It’s important to note that if you are not a part of that community, you need to remove that word from your vocabulary. No exceptions.
It doesn’t matter if a person of color used it affectionately toward you, or even if a person of color said it was okay for you to say it. One person of color does not represent the whole community. The history of racial slurs is filled with violence and hatred, and using them, even with a different intention, still completely ignores and discounts that violence. The best, most inclusive term to use is “person of color.”
Of course, language continues to change and evolve as we do as a society, so it’s important to always do your research and ask questions. To read more about just how far you can take this, check out the following resources:
For a broader understanding of inclusive language, check out the guide from the Unitarian Universalist Association.
For a longer list of inclusive words, check out the Medium’s article on the subject.
For an in-depth guide to inclusive language, use the guide from the Department of Education.
/written by Nora Allen