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Language to Avoid

The term “minority” has come to be seen as a generalized term for “the other.” Also, the use of “minority” implies a “less than” attitude toward the community or communities being discussed. Instead, use either community-specific terms (e.g., “Native American,” “African American,” etc.) or the general term “people of color” when referring to racial or ethnic communities. When referring to other marginalized communities, clarify which specific community or communities are being discussed (e.g., “GLBT people,” “people with disabilities,” etc.). See also “On Race: The Relevance of Saying ‘Minority’” (Edward Schumacher-Matos, 2011)

The use of the phrases “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” are considered divisive and derogatory as they characterize as criminals individuals who are in the United States without documentation. Instead, use the phrase “undocumented immigrant.” See also “Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word Illegal” (Jose Antonio Vargas, 2012)

Both the term “homosexual” and “transsexual” have their origins in medical diagnoses. Because of the pathologized history of these terms, members of the GLBT community avoid them. Instead, use some version of the “GLBT / LGBT / GLBTQ / LGBTQ / etc.” acronym; check with an institution’s diversity office about which version of the acronym is commonly used at that institution (at NC State, ‘GLBT’ is used). When referring to specific individuals, it is ideal to use the term that reflects the language they use to describe their identity (e.g., “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” etc.).

The terms “sexual preference” and “lifestyle” are considered offensive because they imply that a person’s sexuality is a choice. Rather than using either term, use “sexual orientation” instead.

While the use of the term “Eskimo” is not considered offensive by all Alaskan Natives, it is considered offensive by some. As an alternative, some linguists and Alaskan Natives argue that “Inuit” is a more inclusive term to use, though it does not accurately refer to all Alaskan Natives. To avoid referring to an individual or group by a term that is not appropriate for their tribal heritage, the use of their specific tribe name (e.g., Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, etc.) is preferred, and if their tribe name is not known, the use of “Alaskan Native” is an inclusive alternative. See also “Inuit or Eskimo: Which name to use?” (Lawrence Kaplan, 2011)

The word “gypsy” originated as a term used to refer to the Romani (or Roma), a nomadic ethnic group that was characterized as thieves and swindlers. Hence, the term “gyp / gip” is used to refer to the act of stealing. All versions of this term should be avoided as they are derogatory to the Romani people.

The use of the terms “Negro” and “Colored” to refer to black people or African Americans is historically rooted in the systemic racism (i.e., segregation and Jim Crow laws) that characterized when and how the terms were used, which was to remind black people of “their place” and to “keep them there.” Consequently, both terms should be avoided. There is no universally accepted alternative: some people prefer the use of the phrase “black people,” (see section above for notes on capitalization) others prefer the use of “African American,” and the use of “people of color” has emerged as a broader term that is inclusive of people across communities of color and of people with heritages inclusive of multiple communities of color (e.g., Afro-Latino).

Like the terms “Negro” and “Colored” which have meanings deeply connected to their historical use, the term “Oriental” is historically associated with the attitudes about Asians that led to the exclusion acts created to keep Asians from immigrating to the United States. Consequently, the use of the term is considered “othering” and derogatory and should be avoided. Ideally, you would refer to a person by their specific cultural heritage (e.g., Korean, Chinese-American, or Samoan), but if a person’s heritage is unknown, the broader terms “Asian,” “Asian American,” or “Pacific Islander” are appropriate.

While originally the phrase “politically correct” (or “PC”) was intended as a way to denote language that has been vetted or corrected to avoid offending a marginalized group, the phrase has now evolved into a label used to criticize those same protective words and actions by those that seek to remove those protections or claim they are not needed.