Inclusive Language Glossary

In Educating for Democracy, we believe words matters. We understand language is not value neutral. The language we use to describe people has the potential to tear them down or build them up.

Our language choices are shaped by socio-historical processes of power, justice and, often, inequity. This page includes a list of commonly used socially informed terms and the socio-historical context behind them. From "African-American" to "lesbian" to "intersectionality," we provide clarity to the meanings of these terms to support teacher knowledge and possible uses in K-12 classrooms.

Social Justice Terms

Anti-Racist: A person who actively and explicitly combats racist ideas or practices and advocates for racial equity in social, political, and economic life. A person who is anti-racist does not simply ignore or chose not to participate in racist behavior. Rather, they address issues of racism head on and support policy and practices that would create racial equity. Anti-racist is most often viewed of as an interpersonal approach to dealing with racism considering it is focused on the individual actions (Kendi, 2019). 

Color Neutral/Blind: The idea that one should ignore race and color in an effort to move beyond racism, as in the statement, "I don't see color." This approach does not acknowledge that structural barriers and institutional racism exist that impact individuals of color (Burke, 2013). This ambivalence to acknowledging race may allow some people also to avoid noticing race-based discrimination and inequities. While the color blind mindset started gaining attention in the 1970s, "color consciousness" is a newer term that brings to light the voices and struggles of people of color (Smith, 2016). This important contrast allows for conversations to acknowledge these struggles and move toward improvement. Rather than ignoring the problem, this perspective takes an active role in addressing the racial disparities that continue to exist nationwide.

Discrimination: The unequal treatment of members of various groups (e.g. race, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, language, age, national identity, religion and other labels or identities) due to conscious or unconscious prejudice which favors and empowers one group over other. Prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, usually leads to discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex in schools, places of employment, public spaces (e.g. parks, housing, stores) and voting registration. The law makes it illegal for one to retaliate or punish a person who has complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. The law also requires that employers reasonably accommodate applicants' and employees' sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business. Many acts of discrimination build up over time, perpetuated against one relatively less powerful social group by a more powerful social group, leading to a group of people being in a state of oppression.

Equality: There are several different types of equality. Here, the focus is on social equality, or providing everyone with the same thing without regard to circumstances. Equality and equity are often used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. Equality focuses on the equal distribution of resources, while equity focuses on obtaining equal results. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.

Equity: Equity distinguishes itself from diversity, inclusion and equality. Rather than being about diversely representing different groups of people (diversity), including a group of people (inclusion), or equally sharing among all groups (equality) — equity is about what an individual needs to survive and succeed. Additionally, it encompasses human thriving. Another focus within the term equity is social equity. Social equity is fairness in the delivery of public goods and services (Gooden, 2015). Social equity calls for equal treatment for all citizens in the political system, regardless of economic resources.

Implicit Bias: This term is used to describe the attitudes and assumptions individuals unconsciously hold and associate with a person or group of people.

Intersectionality: This term refers to the ways social identities (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, class) are interconnected and informed by social-historical processes which creates unique experiences of privilege and discrimination (Crenshaw, 1990). For example, a Black man and Black woman experience different types of discrimination because of the way their gender intersects with their race. Similarly a Black woman and a White woman will experience different types of discrimination because of the way their race intersects with their gender. Importantly, rather than treating forms of oppression as independent from one another (i.e. a Black woman faces discrimination that is connected to either her race or her gender) one should view experiences as compounded (i.e. a Black woman faces discrimination that is connected to both her race and her gender). Essentially, a person's experiences with discrimination are culminative rather than additive. Intersectionality must be acknowledged to fully address the marginalization some individuals face.

Microaggressions: The commonplace, interpersonal messages that insult people who are marginalized because of their social identities (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, religion, class) and creates oppression at the interpersonal level (Nordmarken, 2014, Sue, 2010) . According to Nordmarken (2014), "Microaggressions are routine in social interaction; all social actors deliver them. These often unconscious and unintentional messages manifest as brief, unthinking slights, snubs, insults, or other indignities, frequently embedded within a stream of communication" (pp. 129). Examples of microaggressions include a woman being spoken over during a meeting, a teacher expressing surprise at the quality of a Black student's paper, or someone "complimenting" a Asian person's English speaking ability. 

Prejudice: A conscious or unconscious negative belief or prejudgement, usually negative, about a whole group of people and its individual members. When a person holding the prejudice also has and uses the power to deny opportunities, resources or access to a person because of their group membership, it leads to discrimination. Prejudice is typically based on unsupported generalizations or stereotypes that deny the right of individual members of certain groups to be recognized and treated as individuals with individual characteristics.

Racism: According to Grosfoguel (2016) "Racism is a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human that have been politically, culturally and economically produced and reproduced for centuries." (pp.10). He also argues racism extends past skin tone and "can be marked by color, ethnicity, language, culture and/or religion" (Grosfoguel, 2016; pp.10). For example, the British treatment of the Irish as inferior mirrored a racial superiority caste even though the two groups shared the same skin tone. By expanding the definition of racism to examine how certain groups are treated as human and subhuman, one can make sense of the racialized divides that go beyond Black and White.

Structural Racism: Many people think racism only occurs at the interpersonal level. This would be seen in a person's prejudiced beliefs or discriminatory actions towards another person. This idea is incomplete. Racism frequently occurs at the macro-level and are integral parts of institutional practices and policies. The legal system is a prime example of how laws that structure society can discriminate against groups of people due to their racialized identities. Slavery is another great example of structural racism given that the institution was legal for generations within the U.S. (Tatum, 2017).

White Supremacy: The belief (ideology) that white people are superior to other races. Many people may believe that White supremacy is the most extreme form of racism and is most accurately represented in the actions of extremist groups like the Klu Klux Klan or Neo-Nazis.   


Racial-Ethnic Identity Terms

African American: The term African American typically refers to Americans who are descendants from Africa due to forced migration (slavery) or voluntary immigration. African American became popularized in the 1990s when civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson  advocated for this term to be used over the other common terms of the time (Black, Negro, and Afro-American). (Recent research suggests that the term was actually used much earlier. A news article from 1782 used African American to give the person credit for the article (Schuessler, 2015). The term was intended to mirror signifiers like Italian-American or German-American. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001. Today, significant debate continues over what terms to use when referring to descendants from Africa. Some people prefer Black American because they feel that they are American and feel less connection to Africa. Others prefer African-American because of the Atlantic slave trade. 

American Indian: American Indian is often used to describe cultures indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. The word Indian is used because Christopher Columbus was convinced that he had made it to India when he made it to the “New World”. The term American was later used to refer to the continents of the Western Hemisphere, named after an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. The terms American and Indian were put together to differentiate the people who are indigenous to this region from those indigenous to South Asia (Pauls, 2008).

Black American: Black is a term that is typically used in reference to skin color. Many believe this term is more inclusive than African American. The use of Black to refer to descendants of Africa grew in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s due to the Black Power Movement. Given the Black Power Movements association with political groups such as the Black Panthers, the term become highly politized and often polarizing (Martin, 1991). There was a movement to use the term African American in the 1980s and 1990s as it was seen as more neutral and more unified. In more recent years, the term Black has reemerged as a moniker of choice. The term Black is seen to encompass those who have been in the US for generations and any new immigrants who have come from Africa and the Caribbean. Some believe it is more inclusive because it extends to recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean who may have different histories and experiences from the traditional African American population in the US. (Simms, 2018).

Caucasian: The term Caucasian was first used in a racial understanding, rather than a regional understanding of local inhabitants, by an 18th-century German philosopher Christoph Meiners. Meiners believed that ancient and modern Europeans in the 18th century were based from the Caucasians centered in the Caucasus Mountains. Later, Johann Blumenbach expanded on the notion and brought more publicity to the term through his understanding of craniometry. Because of Blumenbach’s work, many believed in cranial measurements as scientific evidence of racism, although Blumenbach’s major works are fairly against this notion (Bhopal, 2007). Blumenbach admired the structure of Caucasian skulls as beautiful, which was implied as better or superior through so-called scientific measurements. This idea developed further through scholars such as Thomas Jefferson who believed skull size of races was correlated to achievement and capabilities. 

Over time, the emphasis on facial structure (nose, skull, chin, etc.) has faded away while skin pigmentation continues to be a defining characteristic of being a Caucasian. The word Caucasian has been adopted to dozens of legal, nationally recognized texts. Many people, however, advocate for discontinuation of the word Caucasian, due to the history of abuse connected with the word (Mukhopadhyay, 2018). While there is a connotation of the privilege that comes from being white, historical connotations of Caucasian have developed throughout the past three centuries as being superior. Some push for the use of the phrase “European American” or "White American," (Moses, 2016). 

Hispanic: This term was first introduced in the 1980 U.S. Census during the Nixon administration. The word comes from the Latin term Hispania, which eventually became España (Spain) and is used to refer to people from countries where the primary language is Spanish. Conversely, the term tends to promote Spanish heritage, which is mainly linked to Spain’s history of colonization of many Latin American countries. 

Latino: Traditionally, Latino encompassed both male and female genders; however, in accord with the Spanish language and after claims over the term being masculine-centric, the term Latina developed, and later Latino/a emerged. These terms refer to people from Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico and includes countries where Spanish is not a primary language. 

Latinx: Latinx is a newly developed term aims at being gender-inclusive of people of Latin American descent. The limited research on this term claims it is primarily referenced in U.S. higher education and social media, but it is not widely known or used in Latin American countries. 

Native Americans: Native Americans refer to indigenous individuals who were in the Americas before European colonization occurred.In the 1960s, activists from the United States and Canada began rejecting the term “American Indian” because of its origination coming from Christopher Columbus’ mistake of where he landed. There were also some racist connotations with that term, so “Native American” became the preferred term for many people (Pauls, 2008).

White: The term white originated as a classification for British colonists to use when they were immigrating to North America. As they arrived, they used the term White to set themselves apart from the people they were trying to control and dominate. The term was defined as anyone without a drop of African or Indian (now more often called American Indian or Native American) blood. This definition has changed over time to include and exclude different groups of people, depending on the time and geographical location. Although the term is socially constructed, it has real life implications for the privileges and disadvantages that people have in society (Kivel, 1996).

Gender/Sexual Identity Terms

Asexual: Asexuality is a sexual orientation and is defined as a lack of sexual attraction. An asexual person is not sexually attracted to anyone. An Asexual person may be romantically attracted to other people. For example, a bi-romantic asexual is someone who is not sexually attracted to anyone but is romantically attracted to males and females. There are also aromantic asexuals, who are not sexually or romantically attracted to anyone. Asexuality is not celibacy, a mental disorder, or caused by chemical or hormonal imbalance. There are asexual people who masturbate and enjoy sexual intimacy with others, while not being sexually attracted to anyone. Every asexual person, just like every sexual person, is different and all fall on a wide range of desires and comfort levels. Often, people who identify as asexual are left out of LGBTQIA+ conversations because asexuality is not seen as a valid identity.

Cisgender: Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity aligns with the biological sex they were given at birth. The term emerged in the late 1990s to be mindful of the fluidity of gender, identity, and biological sex. It is important to note, cisgender only refers to gender and not sexuality. One's identification as cisgender has no bearing on their sexual preferences. 

Bisexual: Bisexuality is an incredibly diverse term that encompasses multiple sexual attractions and identities. Many who identify as pansexual, queer, or fluid also fall under the umbrella of bisexual. Individuals who are bisexual are attracted to men, women, and gender nonconforming individuals. While some individuals may be sexually attracted to all genders, they may choose not to identify with the term bisexual due to personal or  political beliefs or community contexts.

Gay: Any individual who is attracted to others within their same gender. The term gay can be used as an umbrella term to include lesbian or bisexual individuals but is primarily associated with men who are interested in other men. Throughout the 20th century, non-heteronormative individuals were often referred to as homosexuals. This change in terminology did not occur until the politicizing and organizing movements around the term gay by LGBTQ+ activists in the 1960s, who were advocating for civil rights and social services.

Gender Pronouns: The need to expand the range of pronouns used for individuals is inherently attached to equality for all identities. Pronouns are words used to refer to people by something other than their name. Our most commonly used gender pronouns (he/she) may not adequately describe the way queer, gender-nonconforming, non-binary, or transgender people may identify. Transgender individuals, for example, may feel he/him or she/her does not accurately describe who they are. Recently, they/them has become a preferred and acceptable gender-neutral term. A number of other gender-neutral pronouns have been adopted, such as zie/zim/zir. When you use the wrong pronoun to describe someone you are misgendering them which can cause psychological or potentially physical harm (in the case of mistakenly outing someone). That is why it is important to take the time to learn and use the appropriate pronouns. It is also important to educate students on pronoun differences and their importance as well as give them an opportunity to express which pronouns they may prefer. When you don’t know, either stick to their names or a gender-neutral phrase such as they/them.

Gender non-conforming: Gender non-conforming refers to people who may dress and act in was that do not adhere to the gender expectations attached to their biological sex. For example, a boy wearing a dress could be viewed as gender non-conforming. 

Intersex:  Intersex is when an individual is born with some combination of male and female biological characteristics. Intersex characteristics are understood to be common, or at least more common than typically recognized, with an estimated 1% of the population having intersex qualities. Intersex qualities may be apparent at birth, puberty or not until after an autopsy. If it is noticeable, some parents may opt to have a procedure to choose the gender of the child, a decision that may disagree with the hormones or identity of the child once they have matured. Another moment intersex characteristics may be more apparent is during puberty, as hormonal mismatches may occur, affecting the identity and potentially the confidence of the child. Understanding this may also impact and help account for expectations of student behavior in the classroom.

Lesbian: This term refers to women who are sexually and romantically attracted to other women. The term lesbian came to prevalence in the 1970s, when a group of queer women started specifically identifying as lesbian. This shift from the terms gay and homosexual to lesbian signified a growing connection many women in the queer community felt toward the struggles of women in the feminist movement. 

Non-binary: Non-binary refers to a person who believes their gender is more nuanced than simply male or female. Those who identify as non-binary believe that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary option and place themselves somewhere along the continuum. 

Queer: The word queer is an adjective used to describe an individual who identifies with one or more of the identities other than straight or cisgender. Queer is also commonly referred to as an umbrella term, because it encompasses those who choose not to identify with only one LGBTQIA+ identity. The term queer is an acknowledgement of gender and sexual fluidity. When used as a noun, the word queer can be both derogatory and negative. Due to recent work by scholars and activists alike, the term has been reclaimed to show a more all-inclusive, gender nonconforming and empowering approach to human sexuality.

Sexual orientation:  Sexual orientation is defined as who you are attracted to and with whom you want to have relations. This definition address whom a person is drawn to romantically, emotionally, and sexually, which is different than a person's own identification of gender or sex, that is, their gender identity. Separating the two concepts is important. Matching an individual to one sex because of their own gender identity is not appropriate. Several variations of a person's sexual orientation can be identified, which is why it is safer and more respectful not to assume anyone’s sexual orientation and allow individuals to explain their orientation. LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and the + stands for allies and other identities not explicitly listed in the acronym) is a term often used to encompass the matrix of preferences or orientations differing from exclusively heterosexual or monogamous.

Transgender: Should be used as an adjective, as in "transgender person." The term transgender is for individuals whose gender identity differs from societal and cultural norms assigning their sex or gender at birth. The term transgender encompasses both gender nonconforming individuals and individuals who identify within the male/female binary. How transgender individuals choose to identify before, during and after their transition is up to them.  The term itself does not imply or assume any specific sexual orientation.


Adapted from Sheri Lyn Schmidt (1994). Texas A&M University. 


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