Illustration of a diverse group of people.

Culturally Competent Terms

Our words are powerful and what we say matters. To gain a better understanding of important diversity and inclusion terminology, we have compiled a list of definitions. The list below is by no means a comprehensive list of important terms.

Able-ism | The belief that disabled individuals are inferior to non-disabled individuals, leading to discrimination toward and oppression of individuals with disabilities and physical differences.

Ally | A person of one social identity group who stands up in support of members of another group. Typically, member of dominant group standing beside member(s) of targeted group; e.g., a male arguing for equal pay for women.

Anti-Racism | The active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.

BIPOC | Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

Cis-Gender | A person who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Class-ism | Prejudiced thoughts and discriminatory actions based on a difference in socioeconomic status, income, class; usually by upper classes against lower.

Color Blind | The belief in treating everyone “equally” by treating everyone the same. This negates the fact that people’s experiences and backgrounds are NOT the same and they should be addressed and understood in their own context.

Conscious Bias (Explicit Bias) | Refers to the attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group that we are aware of on a conscious level. Much of the time, these biases and their expression arise as the direct result of a perceived threat. When people feel threatened, they are more likely to draw group boundaries to distinguish themselves from others.

Culture | A group of people with a similar set of life experiences that shape the way they interpret the world. A person can be born into a particular group or culture, or join or become a part of one, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Cultural Appropriation | The adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behavior from one culture or subculture by another. It is generally applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to appropriating culture. This “appropriation” often occurs without any real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities, often converting culturally significant artifacts, practices, and beliefs into “meaningless” pop-culture or giving them a significance that is completely different/less nuanced than they would originally have had.

Disability | An impairment that may be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or some combination of these. It substantially affects a person's life activities and may be present from birth or occur during a person's lifetime.

Discrimination | The denial of justice and fair treatment by both individuals and institutions in many areas, including employment, education, housing, banking, and political rights. Discrimination is an action that can follow prejudiced thinking.

Diversity | The range of human differences, including but not limited to ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs. The traits and characteristics that make people unique.

Ethnicity | A social construct which divides individuals into smaller social groups based on characteristics such as a shared sense of group membership, values, behavioral patterns, language, political and economic interests, history and ancestral geographical base.

Examples of different ethnic groups are but not limited to:

  • Haitian
  • African American (Black)
  • Vietnamese (Asian)
  • Cherokee, Mohawk
  • Navajo (Native American)
  • Cuban

Equality | The goal of equality is for everyone to receive the same treatment, the same chances, the same resources, etcetera. Equality focuses on fairness.

Equity | Takes into consideration the fact that the social identifiers (race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.) do, in fact, affect equality. In an equitable environment, an individual or a group would be given what was needed to give them equal advantage. This would not necessarily be equal to what others were receiving. It could be more or different. Equity is an ideal and a goal, not a process. It ensures that everyone has the resources they need to succeed.

Gender | The socially constructed concepts of masculinity and femininity; the “appropriate” qualities accompanying biological sex.

Gender Identity | A person’s own understanding of themselves in terms of gendered categories like man and woman, boy and girl, transgender, genderqueer, and many others. How they feel inside or what they believe themselves to be.

Heteronormativity | As a term, it describes the processes through which social institutions and social policies reinforce the belief that human beings fall into two distinct sex/gender categories: male/man and female/woman. This belief (or ideology) produces a correlative belief that those two sexes/genders exist in order to fulfill complementary roles, i.e., that all intimate relationships ought to exist only between males/men and females/women. Often hand-in-hand with heterosexism, this term is the pervasive culture that ensures “normal” is seen as heterosexuality and cisgender culture, and any violation is deviant, strange, or unthinkable.

Inclusion| Refers to involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized. An inclusive university promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members. Refers to "the organizational strategies and practices that promote meaningful social and academic interactions among persons and groups who differ in their experiences, their views, and their traits” (Tienda, 2013). 

Inclusive Language | Refers to non-sexist language or language that “includes” all persons in its references. For example, “a writer needs to proofread his work” excludes females due to the masculine reference of the pronoun. Likewise, “a nurse must disinfect her hands” is exclusive of males and stereotypes nurses as females.

Intersectionality | The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

LGBTQIA+ | Acronym encompassing the diverse groups of lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender populations and allies and/or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender alliances/associations.

Marginalized | Excluded, ignored, or relegated to the outer edge of a group/society/community.

Microaggressions | Commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory racial slights. These messages may be sent verbally, ("You speak good English"), non-verbally (clutching one's purse more tightly around people from certain race/ethnicity) or environmentally (symbols like the confederate flag or using Native American mascots). Such communications are usually outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators.

Non-Binary/Gender Queer/Gender Variant | Terms used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman. Gender queer people typically reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and often, though not always, sexual orientation. People who identify as “gender queer” may see themselves as both male or female aligned, neither male or female or as falling completely outside these categories.

Queer | An umbrella identity term taken by people who do not conform to heterosexual and/or gender binary norms; a reclaimed derogatory slur taken as a political term to unite people who are marginalized because of their non-conformity to dominant gender identities and/or heterosexuality.

Race | A social construct that artificially divides individuals into distinct groups based on characteristics such as physical appearance (particularly skin color), ancestral heritage, cultural affiliation or history, ethnic classification, and/or the social, economic, and political needs of a society at a given period of time. Scientists agree that there is no biological or genetic basis for racial categories.

Racism | Prejudiced thoughts and discriminatory actions based on a difference in race/ethnicity; usually by white/European descent groups against persons of color. Racism is racial prejudice plus power. It is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. The use of power is based on a belief in superior origin, the identity of supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn, sustains and perpetuates racism.

Safe Space | Refers to an environment in which everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves and participating fully, without fear of attack, ridicule or denial of experience.

Sex | Biological classification of male or female (based on genetic or physiological features); as opposed to gender.

Stereotype | Blanket beliefs and expectations about members of certain groups that present an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment. They go beyond necessary and useful categorizations and generalizations in that they are typically negative, are based on little information and are highly generalized.

Token-ism | Hiring or seeking to have representation such as a few women and/or racial or ethnic minority persons so as to appear inclusive while remaining mono-cultural.

Transgender/Trans | An umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term transgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.

An umbrella term that may include transsexuals, cross dressers, drag queens, drag kings, and other people who transgress the socially constructed confines of gender. As a term of self-identification, it should not be imposed on people. Nevertheless, we may use it descriptively to encompass anyone who falls under this broad definition, whether or not they would describe themselves this way.

Unconscious Bias (Implicit Bias) | Social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.

White Privilege | White Privilege is the spillover effect of racial prejudice and White institutional power. It means, for example, that a White person in the United States has privilege, simply because one is White. It means that as a member of the dominant group a White person has greater access or availability to resources because of being White. It means that White ways of thinking and living are seen as the norm against which all people of color are compared. Life is structured around those norms for the benefit of White people. White privilege is the ability to grow up thinking that race doesn’t matter. It is not having to daily think about skin color and the questions, looks, and hurdles that need to be overcome because of one’s color. White Privilege may be less recognizable to some White people because of gender, age, sexual orientation, economic class or physical or mental ability, but it remains a reality because of one’s membership in the White dominant group.

Worldview | The perspective through which individuals view the world; comprised of their history, experiences, culture, family history, and other influences.

Xenophobia | Hatred or fear of foreigners/strangers or of their politics or culture.


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