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Have you heard Black people referred to as “Blacks”, all members of the LGBT+ community referred to as “Gays”, and people with disabilities referred to as “the disabled”? “Blacks”, “Gays”, and “the disabled” are examples of language that reduce individuals to a single attribute, perpetuating racism, ableism, and homophobia. This reductionist language not only oversimplifies the complex identities and experiences of individuals, but also carries a historical legacy of discrimination. This is harmful for a number of reasons:   

  1. It ignores the complex intersectionality of identity that many people live in. Many are not just Black, or Asian, their life experiences can be shaped by additional dimensions such as gender, geography, sexual orientation, disability, caregiving status etc. 
  2. It perpetuates “othering,” a process in which people are viewed as outsiders or different from the perceived norm. This can create a divisive, exclusionary, and hostile environment, contributing to societal prejudices and discrimination – at work and in social settings.
  3. It dehumanizes people by eliminating the reference to them as a person, which is often used to justify their mistreatment.

Instead of referring to people based on just one attribute, rethink your language so you see the whole person – understand that someone may share multiple identities, and may have challenges, but they are not fully defined by them. Always opt for person-centered language. Instead of “Blacks” use Black person, Black people, Black-identifying persons, the Black community etc. Instead of “Gays”, use the specific and correct identification when possible, for example use lesbian woman if they identify as a lesbian woman. Instead of “the disabled” use a person with a disability to signify that the disability does not define them as a person. 

It is crucial to use person-centered language that respects and recognizes the full spectrum of each person’s identity, acknowledging their individuality, experiences, and humanity. Avoiding reductionist language and embracing more inclusive terms fosters understanding, empathy, and equality for all individuals, regardless of their background or characteristics. If you want to know more about where biases and prejudices hide in our everyday language, along with suggestions about changing them, check out our new “Say This Instead” Guidebook.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile