What are the right terms to use to describe people?

Those who are in the dominant group see themselves as “just people.” If their identity is brought up, it’s not an issue, e.g., whether they’re called “‘white” or “Caucasian” doesn’t matter. So they often don’t understand why nomenclature is so important in inclusion.

Nomenclature forces people to get curious about the nuances that are critical to DEI. If you find yourself googling terms to describe people, races, and groups of races and peoples, you are on the right track. Don’t be shy about looking for info. If you are speaking from a place of curiosity and kindness, it’s ok if you use a term incorrectly. Try to update your lexicon regularly and to keep learning the nuances of how to use terminology with the power that it is intended to have.

Learning the ways to describe groups of people respects the people you’re working with. Identity is about self-esteem, personal power, and belonging. It’s important not to diminish those things in others.

There are countless ways that individuals will identify themselves. When you learn how a specific person identifies themselves, do your best to remember their identity without lumping them into a larger group just to make it easier on yourself.

This toolkit will primarily use BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) to refer to the groups of people at risk of being excluded from equity in companies because of race. BIPOC is a political term of solidarity among people who don’t share the same life experiences, history, or cultures. People included in the term do have the distinction of having been forgotten or purposely undermined in many corporate and government systems. We use this term because the purpose of the toolkit is to help leaders reshape their company into an inclusive culture from a systems perspective.

Read this short Vox article on “The meaning of the BIPOC acronym, as explained by linguists”.

BIPOC is a political term, not an identity or a biological term. People won’t usually identify as BIPOC on a personal level. Individuals will identify with specific racial or tribal groups such as Black, Latina, or Dine (people from what is often called the Navajo Nation).

The purpose of self-identity is different from the purpose of political designations. The purpose of political terminology is to further a mission. To become more nuanced in your own usage of nomenclature in discussions about diversity, recognize the differences between terms used for individuals’ identities and those used for political designations.

Another facet of identity is sexual orientation, like gay or straight. LGBTQIA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer (or questioning), Intersex, Asexual (or allied) and the plus stands for a willingness of this community to add others who wish to be included. The reason that this acronym is so long is that these varied groups of people have banded together in solidarity after having been excluded from careers, housing, medical care, and other human rights for generations because of their own gender or their preference of the gender of their romantic partner. Although someone who identifies as Transgendered and someone who identifies as Asexual may not have much in common as individuals, their communities have joined together in a common collective identity of LGBTQIA+ for political and awareness purposes.

Another element of identity is that of someone’s disabilities. A person who is legally blind has a different lifestyle from someone who has narcolepsy (a sleep disorder) or someone who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or someone who uses a wheelchair to get around. However, all of these people are classified as a person with a disability. Disabilities don’t prevent people from having full careers, so employers need to be aware that employees may have a legally classified disability as part of their identity.

Putting it all together

Individuals can be described in a formulaic way by listing race, than sexual preference, then disability, then gender. Cis gender means that someone identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, trans means that someone identifies with a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. A person might identify as a White, Straight, Able-bodied, Cis-gendered Male or another person could be described as a South Asian, Bisexual, Able-bodied, Cis-gendered Female. A person will never identify as BIPOC or LGBTQIA+. However the person who identifies as South Asian, Bisexual, Able-bodied, Cis-gendered Female would be included in both BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ political designation.