Latin@. Womxn. Afrofuturism. Chicanx. Colorism.
These are among 300 new words just added by Dictionary.com, many of which the organization says “spotlight more inclusive and empowered identity and cultural terms that have gained traction in recent years.” These changes in our language serve to embrace and acknowledge the inevitable and rapid changing demographics in the US and globally.
As a Latino gay man and someone who has worked in the diversity and inclusion space for decades, these additions are personally affirming. They add light and credibility to my reality and personal experience. The world I grew up in demanded that I change and fit in if I wanted to be accepted. I still hear comments like, “They’re only words–what’s the big deal?” Well, these words are powerful and can send a strong message that can be either dismissive or engaging.
Language that is inclusive and honors the realities and experiences of diverse communities connects us, and provides a vehicle by which we can gain cultural understanding and competence. It builds more meaningful relationships in our personal and professional lives, which ultimately will yield more productive, creative and collaborative communities.
In institutions of higher learning, language is of particular importance as colleges and universities aspire to be places for robust discourse. It is during the college experience that many people begin to questions assumptions and think more expansively. Inclusive language means that we are intentional in the ways in which we talk to each other. Through such language, we can strengthen our teaching and learning practices.
Changing our vocabulary is difficult. With the rise of non-binary pronouns, I personally struggled with getting that right; though I was committed to addressing people with pronouns that acknowledged gender identity, it felt awkward, counterintuitive and so different than what I was taught and what I was used to. But my respect for individuals who do not identify with either gender, or who identify with both genders, overrides any hesitancy or feelings of discomfort I may have had with this making this change.
Leaning into any discomfort caused by these new words is a good start to understanding them as you hear them, even if you’re not ready to say them. Oftentimes it helps to ask someone, a neighbor or colleague, how they feel about the term that includes them. Sharing each other’s stories can help us see the power of words and their impact on us individually and on the communities where we live and work.
Tomás Leal is the chief diversity officer for Fielding Graduate University, a non-profit graduate institution educating scholars, leaders, and practitioners for a just and sustainable world.