Inclusive language practices are a product of decades of protest and advocacy work led by marginalized groups through the feminist movement, disability rights movement, transgender rights movement, and HIV/AIDS activism, among others. As a result of their activism, we use gender-neutral terms like “flight attendant” or “legislator” instead of gendered nouns like “stewardess” or “congressman.” Or, instead of using terms like “handicapped” or “crippled,” we use “person with a disability.” What these activists have in common is a desire to transform discriminatory linguistic norms that marginalize certain identity groups.
It is important to note that inclusive language is not just about learning specific words to use (for example, asking people their personal pronouns). Inclusive language also means unlearning our tendency to make snap judgements about what labels we should use to describe someone’s identity in the first place. There is a natural inclination to categorize the people we interact with. However, when labels are used to describe someone's identity, people tend to make assumptions about them because of those labels. Those labels often allow us to group people into a monolithic experience that is not actually representative of their reality, ultimately perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Identity is never one-dimensional, generalizable, or static – and our language must reflect that.
Below are a few examples that illustrate what inclusive language looks like in practice.