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Our daily language is full of terms that reduce individuals to a single attribute and can perpetuate racism, ableism and homophobia. Examples include Black people being referred to as “Blacks,” all members of the LGBTQ+ community referred to as “gays” and people with disabilities referred to as “the disabled.” This reductionist language not only oversimplifies complex identities and experiences of individuals, but carries a historical legacy of discrimination.

Reductionist language 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, 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.
  3. It dehumanizes people by eliminating the reference to them as a person, which is often used to justify their mistreatment.

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. By avoiding reductionist language and embracing more inclusive terms, we can work toward fostering understanding, empathy and equality for all individuals, regardless of their background or characteristics.

Instead of referring to people based on just one attribute, rethink your language. Communicate that you see the whole person and 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.

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