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Inclusive language: How marketers can be respectful and compelling

Pink and blue text on a black background that reads, “Marketers must invest in actively evolving the language they use.”

As marketers, writers, and communicators, we know that language matters. And today, with organizations in both the private and nonprofit sectors increasingly focused on ESG and DEI, finding the right words to speak to or describe the cause or community you’re working with is more challenging than ever. It’s crucial to choose language that is inclusive of all identities and doesn’t belittle or objectify — while still being clear and effective.

But, what is inclusive language? Thinkso’s definition is language that doesn’t position any one identity as the default and instead acknowledges a range of experiences in a respectful, accurate, and equitable way.

Drawing on our experience working with both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, we’ve created this framework for choosing language that includes and respects all program participants, employees, and clients/customers — including those who hold identities that have been historically pushed to the margins.

1. Be specific

Whether you’re communicating about your DEI initiatives, talking about your clients or the communities you partner with, or crafting internal communications, make sure you know exactly who you’re talking about and then use words that reflect them specifically.

For example, for decades, people who were not white have been labeled “minorities.” This term is now widely (and rightly) rebuffed because it’s lumping large groups of disparate people together (not to mention demeaning them).

Even the term “BIPOC” — which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color — which has gained prominence in everyday vernacular, is often problematic. Although there certainly are times when BIPOC is appropriate to use, it is too often used as a catch-all term when in reality a specific group is being discussed.

When these broader terms are used, people’s specific identities, histories, and challenges are erased, and it becomes harder to address issues facing those communities. In the words of University of Illinois professor Adrienne Dixon, “People want to be named and recognized, not as part of an amalgam.”

2. Avoid euphemisms

Euphemistic language is another way that we erase the identities of the people we’re describing, while insulating those with privilege and power from topics that make them uncomfortable.

For example, the terms “urban” and “inner-city” are often used as euphemisms for Black and/or poor communities, and the term “special needs” is often used as a euphemism for disability. By avoiding honest, straightforward language, people with more power and privilege (white people and non-disabled people, respectively) are able to ignore the ways they benefit from and uphold structural racism and ableism.

3. Acknowledge structural and historical factors

When we worked with Steve’s Camp, a sleep-away camp offering free programs to teens from economically excluded communities, it was crucial for us to develop language that identifies the populations that the camp serves in order to make eligibility criteria clear to potential participants and to express to donors the importance of the organization’s work. At the same time, we needed to ensure that this language was respectful of the campers and their communities and didn’t erase their agency or strengths. (The last thing anyone wanted to do was make the campers feel bad or deficient in some way.) Balancing these two goals was a challenge.

Our language strategy included an asset-based framework. We avoided terms that suggest a deficit, and chose terms that focus on the culpability of those in power instead of placing blame on the survivors of oppressive systems.

For example, instead of terms like “disadvantaged” or “under-resourced,” we recommended terms like “economically excluded” and “systemically nature-deprived” that capture the role of racist policies and practices — like redlining and racist hiring practices — in creating unequal economic conditions.

In addition, we avoided language that moralizes poverty, such as referring to campers as “deserving.” That term inherently creates a hierarchy by suggesting that only some people living in economically excluded communities are worthy of support from those in power, while the rest deserve their oppressive, unequal circumstances. Steve’s Camp is all about expanding access to programs that all kids should have access to. Using the word “deserving” would have undermined that message.

4. Steer clear of fetishizing and tokenizing language

Whether you’re writing about disability, gender, race, or any other identity, strive for language that frames the person who you’re talking about as a person, not as a symbol of some greater message or ideal.

Similarly, before you bring up someone’s identity when describing their accomplishment, ask yourself whether that identity actually affected their ability to attain that achievement. If the answer is no, think critically about whether you’re discussing their identity in good faith or whether you’re tokenizing or fetishizing that person.

Part of our work with a private sector company involved helping them promote a new partnership with an organization led by a person with a disability. Although this initiative was well intentioned, the original language they were using came across as patronizing and inched into the territory of “inspiration porn,” framing disability as a hardship to overcome and fetishizing the idea of “overcoming” it. It assumed that someone with a disability would be incapable of this person’s accomplishments, thereby suggesting that their disability was inherently a deficit.

Following best practices from The National Center for Disability Journalism and disability rights self-advocates, we reimagined the language by:

  1. Stripping away all details of their partner’s disability that weren’t directly applicable to the situation.
  2. Centering the person’s accomplishments, rather than their disability.
  3. Avoiding language that suggested that their disability was a result of their genetic disorder. (Many disability rights advocates argue that living in an inaccessible world designed for non-disabled people, not a person’s mental or physical attributes, is what causes disability.)

With these revisions, we were able to shift the narrative so that our client was celebrating their partner’s accomplishments for simply being accomplishments that anyone would be proud of, rather than for being a moralistic lesson in overcoming adversity.

5. Listen to the communities you’re talking about

People are experts on their own experiences, so it’s important to let people who hold the identities you’re talking about lead the conversation.

For example, when we created the audience-appropriate language strategy for Steve’s Camp, we worked directly with current staff members, many of whom were former campers. They, in turn, also spoke with current campers. We made adjustments based on their feedback about how they wanted their experiences and communities to be described. Through these conversations, we developed language that was clear, focused, and respectful.

At the same time, welcome feedback, but don’t demand it. Expecting members of traditionally marginalized communities to educate others or be a part of these conversations forces them to take on additional unpaid, often emotionally draining labor and erases the diverse experiences and opinions of people who hold that identity.

Instead, look to professional educators and content creators for guidance. Make activists and writers who openly discuss and advocate for their identities part of your media diet, if they aren’t already.

6. Recognize that the work is ongoing

Language is always evolving and changing, and we need to be prepared to change with it. No group is a monolith. People who share one identity have vastly different beliefs on a range of issues — including the language used to describe that identity.

For example, the NPR podcast Code Switch recently asked its audience how they felt about the term POC and received a wide variety of answers, highlighting the disagreement surrounding the term between people who themselves fall under that umbrella. There is also robust, ongoing discourse about language within the disabled community.

Just like the work of bolstering and evolving policies and practices that organizations do to make them more equitable, marketers must invest in actively evolving the language they use. Our framework provides you a useful tool to do just that.

7. Get comfortable with pushing back — and with being uncomfortable

Often, when we introduce inclusive language to clients, we get some pushback. Sometimes, it involves our client being attached to a euphemistic approach to language because they perceive it as more sensitive than what we’re suggesting. Other times the recommended language acknowledges the cause of historical and current discrimination, prompting those with privilege to feel uncomfortable.

Either way, it can take multiple rounds of discussion and explanation to help them understand the thinking and best practices behind our recommendations. When there’s discomfort, we’ve found it helpful to acknowledge it. When they understand their discomfort is normal and actually a sign that the language is on the right track, it often shifts their thinking.

Although these can be tough conversations, they usually pay off by getting the inclusive language adopted and broadening everyone’s understanding and worldview.

As an organization made up of predominantly white, middle class, cis people (including the author of this article), we’ve had to confront our privilege to craft inclusive language both internally and for clients. We’ve felt that tension and continue to grow from it. We know from our own experiences that by leaning into productive discomfort, organizations can find language that is intentional, respectful, and inclusive.

Interested in exploring inclusive marketing language tailored to your organization’s audience? Drop us a line at