Inclusive Vocabulary

Many people feel uncomfortable discussing socially contentious topics such as race and gender, because they feel defensive about their identities or fear they may inadvertently say the wrong thing.

An inclusive vocabulary enables us to discuss sensitive topics respectfully and productively. Licensed from Adobe Stock Images.

In this chapter, we will build an inclusive vocabulary and learn how to discuss sensitive topics respectfully and productively.

Humans come to know the world through various categories that organize it into knowable fragments, such as cause and effect, substance, unity, plurality, necessity, possibility, and reality. That is, whenever we think about anything, we do so in certain ways; for example, as having causes, as existing or not existing, as being one thing or many things, as being real or imaginary, as being something that has to exist or doesn’t have to exist. Throughout history, people tend to think in terms of categories that help them to demarcate differences. In the process, we also shape the world with the language we use to describe it.

What’s in a name?

An inclusive vocabulary begins with the act of naming. Naming is a powerful act, and it is preferable to defer to people’s own self-identification rather than label them. Categories can be a double-edged sword. Having a name for a minority group can contribute to solidarity. However, the effort to classify humans can also lead to divisive moments. It is the minorities who have to live and contend with flawed knowledge that is created about them.

Location-specific vocabulary

Beyond the issue of naming, inclusive practices are affected by each country’s distinct vocabulary about social difference. For instance, the terms “migrant” and “refugee” hold different connotations in the U.K. than in the U.S. Discourses about race operate on diverse bandwidths. Such terms as “brown people,” First Nations, BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), and AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) are only meaningful in certain countries. Not all the terms are in use everywhere.

A Culture of Care

Not only do word choices matter in creating inclusiveness, but it is also important to use them with care and precision. Sometimes, people use BIPOC, instead of “Black,” to discuss Black issues when the speaker feels uncomfortable naming Blackness. This seemingly casual, euphemistic usage smacks of either anti-Black racism, misappropriation, or both. Instead of naming Blackness, the speaker defaults to an acronym about people of color (POC) in general.

These acronyms are sometimes perceived to lessen the discomfort of the dominant group under the pretense of inclusiveness.

But it is important to not use BIPOC euphemistically, because it can diminish the impact of Black issues.

This is similar to how the acronym LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) is tossed around in discussions of cis-homosexuality that exclude the “T” on the list. When an umbrella term such as LGBTQ conflates gender identity with sexual orientation, speakers who use the acronym often render the “T” (transgender community) silent and invisible. 

In these cases, the speaker does not mean what they say when they use the acronym. They empty out the words and turn them into a harmful social ritual of “inclusion.” Such phenomena beg the question of whether inclusiveness is simply a strategy for providing the greatest comfort to the largest number of people. Is it a numbers game of tokenism that divides the majority from the minority?

There are important political ramifications of such practices. For instance, Asian Americans were left out of the #OscarsSoWhite, a campaign to diversify the voting membership of the Academy awards committee, because the operating definition of “diversity” in the United States rarely includes people of Asian descent.

Created by April Reign, the campaign seeks to “make the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse.”  The political invisibility of Asian Americans is partly caused by widely-circulated, unfounded claims of their overrepresentation as well as erroneous assertions that the “model minority” is wealthy, autonomous, and exempted from discrimination.

In fact, Asian Americans have the largest income disparity and the highest poverty rate of any racial group. Also contributing to the problem are other factors relating to the multiple and contradictory meanings of race in contemporary American culture.

Developing an Inclusive Vocabulary

The first rule of thumb is that we should always use people-based language, by which we mean words that put people first and humanize people. Some examples include wording such as people with disabilities. Instead of saying the insane, we should say people with mental health conditions.

So that we do not unconsciously assume one group is more normal or more valuable than others, we should also pay attention to able-bodiedness. Someone may be socially disabled in one context, but able-bodied in another context.

Gender-neutral (or better: gender inclusive), identity affirmative language is also very important, such as queer people. In general, it is preferable to defer to terms that a community prefers rather than labeling them on our own.

Even flawed films can serve as a productive specimen, in the anthropological sense, for discussion of social justice. Consider, for instance, the politics of gender behind film trailers. Trailers often feature low, masculine voices in their voice-over narration. Lake Bell parodies and critiques this tradition in In a World (2013):

Film trailers in each era have their own conventions and different “social justice quotient.” Read more about theories to analyze film trailers in the Lesson Unit here

You may also wish to reference Keith Johnston’s Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009). 


Global Perspectives

A non-binary, more comprehensive perspective should not be misconstrued as “whataboutism.” Social justice issues are inter-connected, and only by taking a global perspective can we effectively resolve local, and all, issues.

I hope I have given you some insight on the topic of inclusive language within the context of social justice.

Here is what we have learned so far:

  • The blessing and the curse of categorizing human identities
  • Avoiding naming and instead deferring to people’s own self-identification
  • Responsible uses of racial and gender acronyms
  • Invisible minorities