In support of RISD’s commitment to being an anti-racist, equitable and inclusive institution, this guide provides direction for communicating about identity and diversity in inclusive ways. It is not exhaustive and is intended to continuously evolve.
The aim of this guide is to help campus communicators use language that is respectful, aware and anti-discriminatory. Doing so requires careful thought, precise language, close attention to nuance and an openness to conversations with people whose backgrounds and experiences may be different from your own about how to frame communications and use language that is appropriate and accurate.
Communications about RISD should represent the community by featuring, quoting and/or visually portraying people who help make up its diversity. While students, faculty, staff and alumni should not be presented as tokens of a specific racial, ethnic or other historically underrepresented group, lack of inclusion is equally problematic since it devalues underrepresented communities and renders them invisible. Finding the right balance takes careful consideration.
In using this guide to create inclusive, anti-discriminatory communications, it is important to:
- be conscious of stereotypes, assumptions and biases—including your own—so that you can actively work against them and exclude them from communications of any form.
- consider situation and context in determining whether referencing an individual’s ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion or sexuality is appropriate in your communication. When it is, use definitions and language preferred by the person or group involved.
- never reduce individuals or groups down to a single element of their whole person, or position an individual or individuals as representative of a larger group.
- be aware that English may not be your audience’s first language. Keep content clear and concise. Avoid unexplained slang, acronyms, abbreviations, idioms and cultural references.
- remember that we are all technically diverse in various ways—many of which are detailed in this guide. Avoid using the general term “diverse” when referring to a specific person or group of people (e.g., “a diverse hire”), opting to be as clear as possible by using a qualifier (e.g., “racially diverse” or “gender diversity”).
- not insist on the authority of this guide over and above the preferences of those you feature in communications. Respect the wishes of the individual or group and honor their preferences however you can.
Please find below specific guidance on inclusive language as it pertains to the following:
- ableism, disability and neurodiversity
- dates and holidays
- family-inclusive language
- formal education and social class
- person-centered language and communication
- race and ethnicity
- sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and pronouns
We welcome feedback on this guide, which was created through the collaboration of a number of staff members across campus. Thank you to the following RISD community members for reviewing and/or contributing feedback to the first iteration, making this a truly collaborative working reference guide: Media Group (Kerci Marcello Stroud, Brian Clark, Huy Vu, Jaime Marland, Jordan Gushwa, Rob Albanese, Simone Solondz, Danielle Mancuso, Carrie Miller, Lauren Maas, Jay Marol, Jay Davani, Laura Pichardo), IE Communications team (Evan Gallivan, Christy Law Blanchard, Susanna Prull, Michaela Donnelly, Kelsey Grunstra), Taylor Scott, Matthew Shenoda, Ulli K. Ryder, Candace Baer, Amee Spondike, Amy Pickworth, MJ Robinson, Hattie McLean, Anu Meschisen, Deanna Casanovas, Rebecca Nolan, John Murphy, Kate Sacco and Nicole Verardo. Please send suggestions to Jaime Marland at email@example.com.
Ableism, disability and neurodiversity
As with other elements of identity, refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the context of your communication and use people-first language as described by the Office of Disability Rights. People-first language puts the person first and the disability second. This approach describes what a person has, and not who a person is, e.g., “individual who uses a wheelchair or mobility chair” rather than “a wheelchair user” or “person with autism” over “autistic person.”
Also be as specific as possible in identifying a particular difference or disability: dyslexia is an example of a learning disability, which is just one type of disability. Examples include learning differences or disabilities, visual impairments, hearing impairments, mental health diagnoses, chronic medical disabilities and physical differences and disabilities. Always avoid ableist words such as handicapped or wheelchair-bound or able-bodied and euphemisms and neologisms like diversability and handicapable unless in a direct quote or in reference to a specific movement/organization. Opt for current best practices as indicated by the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ). More on person-centered language in the section below.
Be conscious of the language you choose, as some individuals may prefer the term learning difference while others prefer neurodiverse. Neurodiversity refers to the differences in the human brain relating to learning, attention, mood and sociability.
If an individual’s or group’s preferences differ from any of these recommendations, respect those preferences and honor them however possible.
Download the Disability Awareness Toolkit for more information on how to make RISD a more accessible community.
Dates and holidays
Reference seasons (e.g., winter break versus Christmas break) rather than specific holidays; if referencing religious holidays, use the specific term (such as Hanukkah or Eid al-Fitr).
Check an interfaith calendar, like RISD Intercultural Student Engagement’s (ISE) calendar, to avoid scheduling conflicts and educate yourself on the faith traditions of our community that take place throughout the year.
The RISD Student Affairs handbook includes a religious observance policy that communicates the college’s official policy and provides guidance to students on how to support requests for religious observances while maintaining RISD’s commitment to its academic mission.
It is also important to be mindful of how religious and cultural events may impact students. It is helpful to attend cultural events that are open to the RISD community throughout the year to gain a better understanding.
Use the broader, more inclusive word family as opposed to narrower words that assume nuclear and/or heteronormative family configurations, e.g., parents or mother and father. By contrast, family also encompasses grandparents, single-parent families, guardians, etc., as valued members of our community.
Take time to spell and pronounce names correctly. If you are unsure how to pronounce someone’s name, ask and then confirm that you have said it correctly. You can also consult online pronunciation resources for languages such as Arabic, Hindu and Urdu, Mandarin Chinese Pinyin, Spanish and Thai. At any given time, there are 18–25 different languages spoken at RISD. The following is a helpful general reference guide for a variety of languages: pronouncenames.com.
It is also important to keep in mind that community members may use chosen names that are different from their legal names (sometimes called a given name or a dead name). A person’s chosen name should always be used over their legal name. Note that preferred name is outdated, as it is not a preference but a reflection of personal identity.
Nationality refers to a person’s place of birth. RISD is a campus that supports students, staff and faculty from around the world. Being aware of your own starting point with the topic or information being shared and acknowledging that there are individuals from different countries, cultures and perceptions in your messaging encourages a different level of learning and engagement.
With this, be mindful of the cultural context of the audience you are communicating with. This is a good general rule across all areas of difference, and it is apparent in specific ways as it relates to nationality. While discussions around world news, politics, pop culture, etc. may tend to be US-centric given the majority of our campus is physically located in the United States, using phrases such as, “as we all know…” or “obviously, you are aware that…” can create distance between the intended message and the audience. It should not be assumed that everyone should or will know everything about the US just because they are studying or working here. It is each of our responsibility to act as representatives of our respective countries to engage in global learning and exchange. Every individual at RISD adds value with their background, experience and insights.
See more on race and ethnicity in the section below.
Person-centered language and communication
When explaining elements of a person’s identity, focus on their personhood. Avoid using adjectives as nouns and labels that equate people with conditions. Opt for descriptive phrasing and adjectival forms instead. For example:
- A person experiencing poverty instead of low-income person
- People experiencing poverty instead of the poor
- Someone who has been incarcerated or formerly incarcerated instead of felon
- Black or white people instead of Blacks and whites
- Enslaved people instead of slaves
- A person without housing instead of a homeless person (and note that unhoused is preferred over homeless, as the former connotes that housing is a human right that has not been provided a person or group of people)
Consider context when referencing and including characteristics and identity. Terminology referring to elements of identity, such as race, ethnicity, disability, age, gender identity and so forth can be discriminatory or irrelevant in some situations. On the other hand, some situations may call for clearly naming and affirming a part of someone’s identity.
For example: Does a story about students who won artistic scholarships need to note that one of the students uses a wheelchair? Likely not, unless the fact that the student uses a wheelchair was directly linked to the content they were honored for, e.g. if they created work about this element of their experience.
Race and ethnicity
There is a difference between the terms race and ethnicity, which are often used interchangeably. Race is a social construct that includes visible characteristics such as skin color, whereas ethnicity refers more to cultural phenomena and encompasses factors such as nationality, tribal affiliation, religion, language and traditions of a particular group.
Language commonly used in relation to race and identity is as follows. As stated previously, this guidance should not be followed over an individual’s preference. Personal, generational and regional contexts may come into play in any given communication—always respect a person’s wishes and honor their preferences however you can.
BIPOC Capitalize all letters of this acronym, which stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Keep in mind that this is an inclusive term for people facing very different histories but marginalized and not treated equally on a global scale.
Black Follow AP style in capitalizing the word Black when used as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense (Black people, Black lives, Black colleges, Black culture, Black teachers) and don’t use the word interchangeably with people of color.
African American is also acceptable, though Black is more inclusive, as it acknowledges differences of geography, heritage and culture among those within the whole of the African continent and its diasporas.
Indigenous Follow AP style in capitalizing this word, which refers to the original inhabitants of a place.
When referring to the totality of tribes whose ancestors lived within what is now the US, Indigenous Peoples or Indigenous people is often, but not always, preferred over Native American(s) or American Indian(s). For individuals or two or more people who share the same tribal heritage, or when referring to specific customs, etc., use the name of the tribe, such as: a citizen of the Navajo Nation (also called Diné), the Narragansett tradition, Wampanoag heritage.
In Alaska Indigenous groups are collectively known as Alaska Natives. In Canada the preferred term is First Nation (and tribe is generally not accepted). In Australia aborigine is an outdated term for aboriginal people and should be avoided since it’s considered offensive.
Worth noting, Admissions uses what’s commonly known in higher ed as a "territory management model" for recruitment, whereby each Admissions officer is assigned a set of states referred to as a "territory." However, because the term territory has negative connotations rooted in colonization, RISD has moved away from using this industry term and will now use area or region.
Latino/a/x, Spanish and Hispanic Latino, Latina and the gender-inclusive word Latinx (pronounced lah-TEEN-ex) refer to people from Latin America, whereas Spanish is specific to people from Spain (and therefore, should never be used to simply refer to people who speak Spanish). The word Hispanic applies to Spanish-language speakers of both Spanish and Latin American origin. For Americans of Latin descent, specify place of origin whenever possible—Mexican American, Dominican American, etc.
Once again, personal and regional context need to be considered, as the term “hispanic” is generally more preferred on the East Coast (US) and fell out of favor on the West Coast long ago in favor of Latino and, depending on the person, Chicano. Some people also contest the use of Latinx, so it’s always good to ask exactly how an individual identifies.
Multiracial This refers to anyone whose background and identity encompasses two or more races. As always, honor the preferences of the person or group featured in your communication: On the one hand, you should not reduce a person of multiracial background down to a single race; on the other, if a person identifies strongly or solely with one aspect of their racial background, respect their preferences.
Person/people of color The phrase person/people of color (never “colored people”) is preferred over minority, which carries connotations that are both diminutive and inaccurate for describing specific groups that may not actually be of a mathematical “minority” at all—especially in the US, where demographics are constantly shifting. Some of the relative sizes of populations are a result of genocide and systemic structures that prevent these communities from surviving (e.g., Indigenous people in the US).
Place/nation of origin When possible, be specific when addressing racial or ethnic groups. Nation or region of origin is more specific than a generalized origin: Chinese rather than Asian, Nigerian rather than African, etc.
Other racial identifiers Capitalize other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latinx and do not hyphenate dual heritage terms such as Asian American, Filipino American, Mexican American and so forth. Don’t capitalize the words white or people of color (except when used as part of the BIPOC acronym).
Do not use the word brown as a racial identifier unless quoting an individual who identifies as such.
Sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and pronouns
Sex Sex refers to an individual’s sex assigned at birth only. This is distinct from gender, which refers to one’s gender self-identification or to socially constructed roles and expectations. Note that biological sex should only be utilized as medically or legally required (i.e., medical records or federal reporting guidelines). The term biological, particularly in reference to sex assigned at birth, is very often weaponized against the trans community and, as such, should not be utilized in communications.
Sexual orientation This refers to an individual’s romantic and/or physical attraction, and is distinct from gender identity. Some examples of sexual orientation identifiers are: heterosexual, bisexual, queer, pansexual and/or asexual. Avoid medicalized terminology like homosexual when referencing people attracted to members of the same gender. Gay (adj.); gay man, gay person / people and lesbian / lesbians (n.) / queer (adj.) and queer people (n.) are commonly preferred terms. As always, follow the preferences of the person about whom you are communicating as these identities and terms are very personal.
Gender identity Gender identity is an individual’s self-identification or conception of their gender. A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth, cisgender woman or cisgender man. People whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth commonly identify as transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender and/or gender non-conforming.*
*This is not an exclusive list of common gender identity terminology.
In general, use non-specific language that does not assume or assign identity. For example, child, young adult, humankind or people, craftspeople. It is appropriate to use an individual’s pronouns if you know the pronoun a person uses: he, she, they, etc. If you do not know an individual’s pronouns, it is best to use neutral pronouns such as they/them/theirs or to use no pronouns at all.
Pronouns Common pronouns include she/her/hers, he/him/his and they/them/theirs—as in the example, “Clark is coming for an interview today and they are an incredible musician.” Other pronouns, sometimes known as neopronouns, can include: ze/hir/hirs (pronounced “zee”/”heer”/"heers"), ey/em/eirs, xe/xem/xyr, per/per/pers and ve/ ver/vis. For more information on pronouns, visit: mypronouns.org.
When addressing groups of people whose pronouns you don’t know, use gender-neutral language such as “students,” “friends,” “folks,” “folx,” “y’all,” “guests” etc. rather than “guys,” “ladies,” “ma’am,” “sir,” “ladies and gentlemen” etc. These are just examples and may not all be appropriate for every situation or communication—take care to choose language based on audience, sender and type of communication.
A common way to foster an inclusive environment is by sharing your own pronouns, as doing this helps signal respect for people’s identity. Actively create opportunities for people to self-identify by including pronouns in spaces like introductions, signatures and Zoom IDs*, and make space for individuals to politely correct others during the course of a conversation, or privately just after.
LGBTQIA+ is the acronym used to refer to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/and or Questioning, Intersex and Asexual. The "+" symbol simply stands for all of the other sexualities, sexes and genders that aren't included in these few letters.
*To enable people to change their Zoom identification in meetings you host, go into your Zoom settings and enable “Allow participants to rename themselves.” To change how your RISD Zoom ID appears on meetings you attend, email your preferred identification to firstname.lastname@example.org.
References and resources
Advancement Project. The Social Justice Phrase Guide
advancementproject.org/resources/the-social-justice-phrase-guide/ and opportunityagenda.org/explore/resources-publications/social-justice-phrase-guide
APA Style Guide. General Principles for Reducing Bias
APA Style Guide. Bias Free Language: Socioeconomic Status
GLAAD Media Reference Guide. Terms to Avoid
GLSEN. Pronoun Guide
Harvard Business Review. Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases
National Center on Disability and Journalism. Style Guide
The New York Times. A Debate Over Identity and Race Asks, Are African-Americans ‘Black’ or ‘black’
The New York Times. BIPOC: What does It Mean?
Stanford: Race & Ethnicity
University of Massachusetts at Lowell: Diversity and Social Justice: A Glossary of Working Definitions