Definitions and Recommended Terms

Guidelines for Use

The resources below provide definitions and recommended terms to use in constructing strategic plans for diversity, equity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging (DEIS) at Michigan Tech. Of course, the moment we use these terms, we might immediately wonder, "What does all this mean?" Not surprisingly, various definitions for each of these terms exists. However, a few common themes emerge that can help us work toward common goals:

  • Diversity is often referred to as simply "what is." Everyone is unique, and diversity is the panorama of our similarities and differences. In some respects, diversity is not a goal; it is a reality. However, the most representative facets of diversity that various institutions are composed of can speak volumes about their diversity values.
  • Equity is treating everyone in a fair and just manner. However, what does that mean? Some define "equity" as "equality," that is, treating everyone the same. Sometimes, however, in order to be fair, you have to treat others differently. Equity recognizes that not everyone comes from the same place or brings the same characteristics to the equation. Two different people may have the ability to get to the same place, but they may need to take different paths to get there. Equity is understanding this point and helping each person along the path that is best for them.
  • Inclusion is the application of equitable structures and conventions that make people feel welcome. Inclusion celebrates difference. Diversity is coming to the party; inclusion is being invited to dance.
  • Sense of belonging is what a person feels when diversity, equity, and inclusion characterize the environment. When you experience a sense of belonging, you feel like you’re an integral part of a community where you can explore and grow with others who will support you.

None of the definitions and recommended terms below are intended to be authoritative. Experts and members of various identity groups disagree on what some terms mean and how they should be used. However, units can and should use these resources as a primer to begin the conversation—in good faith, with the intent of applying the best terms possible. Aside from some terms that are obviously offensive, we are all learning, and we should be gracious to those who make honest mistakes.

Finally, the material below is not exhaustive, and, ultimately, units will need to make their own decisions about definitions and terms. As always, units are encouraged to consult with the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion (OVPDI) on specific questions.

Selected Web Resources

MTU Center for Diversity and Inclusion’s Equity and Inclusion Vocabulary Glossary

The Annie E. Casey Foundation Equity vs. Equality and Other Racial Justice Definitions

Identity-First Language

Guidance for Reporting and Writing About Racism

Guidelines: Writing about aging and disability

33 LGBTQ(IA+) Terms You Should Know

GLAAD Media Reference Guide - Terms To Avoid

Racial Equity Tools Glossary

What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?

Other Considerations


Traditionally, when used as designations of racial/ethnic groups, black and white have not been capitalized. Today, some are capitalizing Black, but not white—though arguments exist to capitalize both. On the other hand, African American, Asian American, and other group names are capitalized. However units decide to handle this issue, it should be done thoughtfully and consistently.

Gray Areas

Again, no hard and fast rules exist—but terms can have gray areas and change over time. For example, the term minority was commonly used decades ago, but today it is considered pejorative, and it will likely become inaccurate in America in the coming decades (an alternative option is to say diverse/racial ethnic groups). Underrepresented is another example that is common today, but may not be accurate in all situations—for instance, Asian Americans are not technically underrepresented in certain environments where the term is sometimes applied to them. Underrepresented/underserved is sometimes used as a cover term to identify all diverse racial/ethnic groups.

Another consideration is using terms as nouns or adjectives. A term like “the disabled” should be avoided in favor of “disabled people” (see also reclamation of identity-first language). Saying Black people and White people is better than saying Blacks and Whites. Generally, hyphenate racial descriptors when used as adjectives (e.g., Asian-American students), but not as nouns (e.g., Asian Americans). More specifically, transgender and trans are appropriate as nouns, but never use transgendered.

Specific Identities


LGBTQIA+ is the term most frequently used for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual individuals. The plus sign is intended to include people who don’t specifically identify with any of those labels. While the complete term is preferred, LGBT or LGBTQ is often used as a convenient shorthand, especially on second use. Another important facet of LGBTQIA+ work—and, indeed, all for facets of DEIS—is allyship. Allyship is the practice of confronting systems of oppression, regardless of its impact on a specific individual, as a social justice issue. For the LGBTQIA+ community, including allyship is often referred to as LGBTQIA+ Allyship.

Indigenous Americans

For years, Native American seemed like a good choice, but some native people prefer American Indian (despite its inaccuracy) because it distinguishes them from anyone who might refer to themselves as “native” Americans because they were born in the United States. As an overall term, Indigenous Americans may be the best designation, but native peoples almost always prefer to be identified by their nation or tribal community (e.g., the Ojibwe Nation or Keweenaw Bay Indian Community) when possible.

Disabled People

Within the disability community, terms such as handicapped and wheelchair-bound are offensive. Avoid words that imply that disabled people are victims, such as “suffers from.” Some differences may seem confusing, but it’s not hard to understand why “person with a mental health condition” is preferred over “mental patient.”

Black People

Designations for Black people are quite fluid today. Some object to the term African American because not all Black people who are American citizens strongly identify with this term (for example, those who trace their ancestry to the Caribbean). Some Africans also find the term pejorative. Black people or Black Americans (assuming all included in the group are American citizens) may be the best choice.

Asian Americans

Asian American is almost universally recognized as the preferred term.

Hispanic/Latinx People

Given the number of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in the Americas, it is not surprising that it is difficult to find a single term to describe people whose origins include these many countries. Hispanic refers to Spain and doesn't accurately describe Brazilians, whose heritage goes back to Portugal. Latino, like Hispanic, is Eurocentric, and it also has a masculine ending in the Spanish and Portuguese languages (though gender in these languages has less to do with human gender than it does in English). The most acceptable term is Latinx, but only a tiny minority of native speakers use it—and most haven’t even heard of it. Further, Latinx is hard to pronounce, especially for Spanish and Portuguese speakers, and many consider it to be an imposed term. Latine has been proposed as an alternative, but it is even less well known than Latinx. OVPDI recommends using Latinx but acknowledges its limitations.