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Diversity and Inclusion

Your guide to talking about diversity

Most people are well-meaning when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But often, caring deeply isn’t enough. We have to practice inclusive behaviour every day. And one of the most powerful ways we can do that is to talk about diversity. Or call out challenging behaviour.

But our uncertainty of the right words to use about diversity can be paralysing. Most of us are worried we’ll handle it wrong, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, ask the wrong question – and as a result we simply don’t talk about race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or any number of different dimensions at work.

But that’s not helpful. As Mellody Hobson says in Color Blind or Color Brave?, not talking about our differences is dangerous because it means we also ignore related issues like discrimination and the very real barriers to equality.

Being able to talk freely about differences without feeling intimidated, without being scared of offending someone or hurting someone’s feelings, is really important. So we’ve created this short guide on the everyday language to use to help conversation flow freely and help you feel less intimidated in talking about our differences.

📌 Disclaimer: this guide is by no means comprehensive – on the contrary, it’s far from it! For the sake of brevity, we’ve covered key topics in this guide for the dimensions of diversity that we’re most likely to shrink away from talking about.

What’s covered in this guide?

  • The basics
  • How to talk about race and ethnicity
  • How to talk about gender and sexual orientation
  • How to talk about disability

The Basics

3 simple rules to follow when talking about diversity

In many cases, there’s no single “best” way to describe a dimension like gender, race, ethnicity or disability.

Guatemalan or Latina? Hard of hearing or deaf? Bangladeshi or British Asian? That’s impossible to know given they’re all acceptable descriptors – it’s really up to the individual.

So, it’s best not to make assumptions about how people identify themselves.

As long as you have good intentions and avoid obviously inflammatory terms, it’s usually fine to ask someone how they’d describe themselves.

“Asking people is not a bad thing. People don’t get offended. Personally, I’ve never been offended with anyone asking me a question. I do get offended when people form an opinion or a perception without actually asking me. This is about the simplest of things that individuals can do to create a more inclusive environment.”
– Asif Sadiq, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at The Telegraph

Here’s how you can ask:

💡Be vulnerable: kick off with some vulnerability to disarm them and show them your intentions are good. A few suggestions:

  • admit you’re clueless about this stuff
  • say you’re not sure the right way to ask this and you hope it doesn’t come across as being intrusive
  • if the conversation gets uncomfortable, speak about your own experience and background and explain that you’re always trying to learn more

💡Ask: be curious & respectful with your question: “I’m curious to know…

  • … how you identify yourself?”
  • … what’s your background?”
  • … what’s your heritage?”
  • … how should I refer to your impairment?”

💡Give thanks: it’s always nice to end with a “Thanks for sharing!” or similar

Don’t get caught up in being overly precious or politically correct – being fixated on the right and the wrong language will stop you from talking about diversity at all! Instead, accept that there’s a chance you’ll get an awkward reply. Respect that and apologise, if need be.

Although it’s inevitable that we’ll need to use labels, in general, labelling people by a single dimension is problematic because it reduces their identity to that single factor. Labels can also contribute to stigma and discrimination. An example:

“My blind neighbour Dan…”

Well, surely there’s more to him than his blindness – is that fact really central to your comment?

The solution?

When using a label related to a condition or trait, describe people with adjectives, not nouns. This is known as “people-first language”.

In other words, the label should be a descriptor of them as a person rather than the entire definition. This acknowledges and humanises the individual, showing that they are a person first and foremost, and are defined by more than just their disability. Some examples:

💡 “People with disabilities” NOT “the disabled”

💡 “She has a mental illness,” NOT “She’s a schizophrenic,”

How to talk about race & ethnicity

5 key things to keep in mind while talking about race and ethnicity at the workplace:

Don’t assume you can even begin to understand others’ experiences or viewpoints.  

The reality is you can’t. Never act as though you understand their perspective based on your own personal experiences. This will likely come across as naïve at best, patronising and offensive at worst.

People can only speak for themselves. 

Don’t expect people to be an expert on world events just because their cultural heritage is linked in some way. And also don’t expect a person’s opinions or behaviours to represent their entire racial or ethnic group.

Don’t tell people they’re “acting white”. 

Being told you’re acting “too white” when you take on the social expectations of white society is problematic. It’s a particularly common experience for people of dual heritage who are often (wrongly) expected to choose a dominant identity.

This is a subtle way of shaming someone for embracing a part of their identity. That’s not right – none of us are one-dimensional, and we should be free to define ourselves based on multiple identities, including ethnic identities.

Don’t assume people aren’t British or American just because they aren’t white. 

Obviously the UK or the USA is a diverse place. Being British or American is about your nationality and the place you call home, not about your race or ethnicity.

It’s usually better to be as specific as possible about someone’s identity.

For example, describing someone as Vietnamese is almost certainly better than describing them as Asian or a person of colour. (Better yet, ask them how they identify themselves!)

To better familiarize yourself with the key terms on race and ethnicity, check out our D&I Glossary where we cover key terms such as BAME, Ethnocentrism, White privilege, People of Color and more.

How to talk about gender & sexual orientation

First things first, let’s clear up some common misunderstandings.

Sex vs gender: Sex is the biological category (female or male) given at birth based on physical characteristics, i.e. chromosomes and genitalia.

Gender is a social and cultural construct of “female” and “male”. Although our sense of gender certainly starts with our assigned sex, it goes well beyond chromosomes.

It’s defined by our body (beyond genitalia), our sense of identity, and our gender expression (i.e., how we present our gender to the world). For instance, a trans woman would have been assigned male sex at birth, but now identifies as female.

And so that’s her gender.

Gender identity vs sexual orientation:  Gender identity is personal: it’s how we see and define ourselves. Sexual orientation is interpersonal: it’s who we’re romantically attracted to.

To better familiarize yourself with the key terms on gender and sexual orientation, check out our D&I Glossary where we cover key terms such as Asexual, Bi, Cis, Gay, Intersex, Lesbian and much more.

How to talk about disability

Have you ever told someone with a visible disability that they were inspirational for fulfilling an everyday task? You were just trying to be nice, after all. But watch the video snippet below to find out why that’s actually a bit problematic.

Your key takeaway – don’t call people with disabilities “brave” or “inspiring” just because of their disability – it’s simply setting the bar too low. Equally, don’t feel guilty or pity them – they simply want to be treated as people like you or I, not “heroes.”

Your disability glossary: Words to avoid and use when talking with someone with a visible disability

🚫 (the) handicapped, (the) disabled
👌 disabled (people)

🚫 afflicted by, suffers from, victim of
👌 has [name of condition or impairment]

🚫 confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound
👌 wheelchair user

🚫mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal
👌with a learning disability (singular), with learning disabilities (plural)

🚫 cripple, invalid
👌 disabled person

🚫 spastic
👌 person with cerebral palsy

🚫 able-bodied
👌 non-disabled

🚫 mental patient, insane, mad
👌 person with a mental health condition

🚫 the blind
👌 people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people

🚫 an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on
👌 person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression, or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression

🚫 dwarf; midget
👌 someone with restricted growth or short stature

🚫fits, spells, attacks
👌seizures

Braving eye-opening conversations about diversity and our differences needn’t be a minefield. You can be respectful, confident and curious with the help of this short guide, our glossary, and simple cues.

Your guide to talking about diversity

If you have any thoughts, feedback or suggestions on how we could make this guide better,

We’d love to hear from you!

Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.