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Using appropriate terminology is a vital part of being an effective communicator. Using inclusive language is a way of showing consideration for everyone we meet. It is a way of recognizing, accepting, and sometimes celebrating personal characteristics such as gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other attributes that make up a person’s identity. Using inclusive language centers the individual person and is one way of showing solidarity, allyship, and just plain old kindness. In a profession that aims to foster a welcoming, respectful, and accessible environment, inclusive language should be part of the everyday vernacular of library staff.
So, what is inclusive language?
As the Linguistic Society of America puts it:
Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.
Inclusive language is the intentional practice of using words and phrases that correctly represent minority—and frequently marginalized—communities, such as LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), people with disabilities, people with mental health conditions, immigrants, etc. The key is to avoid hurtful, stereotypical language that makes individuals feel excluded, misunderstood, and/or disrespected. The use of inclusive language acknowledges that marginalized communities have ownership over the terminology that they use to refer to themselves, not the majority. It should also be noted that terminology isn’t necessarily ubiquitous across an entire group.
You might have said to yourself, there are so many new words or phrases nowadays, it’s hard to keep up! You might also have felt like you were worried about “saying the wrong thing.” Rest assured that language is always evolving as social, cultural, and technological changes occur, and you’re not expected to know everything all of the time. A willingness to learn and an awareness that you don’t have all the answers are extremely helpful traits that can aid in building trust with the people you meet.
One resource to keep in mind is the Pacific University’s extensive glossary of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion terms. Northwestern’s Inclusive Language Guide also offers a lot of examples of preferred terms.
Centering the individual first
Inclusive language centers the individual by referring foremost to someone as a person. Doing so reinforces the idea that someone is not defined by certain characteristics, such as race, religion, or disability. For example, it is still fairly common to refer to a person with a disability as simply “disabled.” It is now becoming more standard to use the phrase “Person with a disability.” The aim is to acknowledge the individual person first; this is also known as person-first or person-centered language. For example, “She is a person with a disability” rightfully acknowledges that this person has a disability, but they are not one-and-the-same, or synonymous with that disability. For more on inclusive language with respect to disability, check out this guide by the Stanford Disability Initiative.
Another way of thinking about centering the individual is with respect to race and ethnicity. Instead of referring to “a black” or “a Jew,” simply remembering to add the word “person” (i.e., a black person, a Jewish person) affirms that you are describing a person above all, while making it clear that you are not defining someone based on a single trait.
Pronouns: If you’re not sure, ask
Mostly we use the pronouns that are consistent with the person’s gender expression regardless of what we think their biological sex might be. If you are unsure of how to refer to an individual or what the correct words to use may be, asking respectful questions creates an opportunity for learning and the person you are asking may—or may not, as is their right—wish to affirm their identity to you. If you are unsure of a person’s pronouns, and it is appropriate to ask, keep it simple with something like, “Would you mind sharing what pronouns I should use when speaking to you?” In the case of gender identity, it is always better to ask than to assume. For more information on LGBTQ+ inclusive language, check out the Ally’s Guide to Terminology by GLAAD.
Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Also, a person who identifies as a certain gender should be referred to using pronouns consistent with that gender. When it isn’t possible to ask what pronoun a person would prefer, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression.
-From GLAAD’s Ally’s Guide to Terminology
Do your research
Inclusive language is a broad and evolving topic. As with most things, doing a little bit of solo research can go a long way. Try to utilize reliable, research-based sources whenever possible, and also seek out the voices of experts from diverse backgrounds.
Intentionally using and remaining receptive to the appropriate terminology are key ways of giving others the dignity they deserve. Library staff engage with an intersection of many different types of people on a day-to-day basis. It is critical that we reinforce what libraries represent as an inclusive place for all by using the language that mirrors our values.