''What Are You?'': Language, Power, and Identity

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The EDUCAUSE Inclusive Language Guide explores the ways language reflects and influences how we see ourselves and others.

What Are You? Language, Power, and Identity
Credit: rangizzz / Shutterstock.com © 2022

I am White. Both my parents are White—my family is descended mostly from English, Irish, and German immigrants—and on every form that has ever asked for my race, I select "White." I am not Hispanic, nor am I Latino, though some Hispanics are White, as are some Latinos. Some, but not all, Latinos are Hispanic, but not all Hispanics are Latino. Some people are Hispanic, Latino, and White. More on this later.

One of my classmates in middle school was a guy named Kyle. More than a few times, kids in school asked Kyle, "What are you?" Kyle's answer was always an exasperated "I'm Black." Kyle's dad is Black, and his mom is White. Kyle might have described himself as biracial, multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, or any of the various terms that have been used to identify people whose parents (or grandparents or great-grandparents) don't all come from the same national/regional/ethnic/religious/cultural group. In a very real sense, of course, that fairly describes most of us. But identity is important, and we assign ourselves and others to groups. For Kyle, that meant Black. Similarly, former U.S. President Barack Obama identifies as Black (or, sometimes, African American), for reasons he has explained.Footnote1 U.S. Representative G. K. Butterfield from North Carolina identifies as Black. His parents were multiracial, and he grew up in the segregated South and attended Black schools. Racial identity is as much about how we experience and navigate the environments we live in as it is about our genetic heritage.

What, then, does it mean for me to say I am White? Or for Kyle to say he is Black? What is contained in anyone's expression of their racial identity?

The Evolution of White

Before the practice of slavery in the United States became widespread, much of the labor in the British colonies came from indentured servants, most of European descent, who generally could not be held as slaves for life because they were Christian. In contrast, the law allowed non-Christians to be held as slaves, and this essentially applied to all of the people sent to the colonies from Africa. Over time, the utility of using faith as a determinant for slavery eroded, in part because many enslaved Africans converted to Christianity. At the end of the 17th century, slave owners revised the law so that exemption from slavery was conditioned not on being Christian but on being "White." As Eric Williams, a historian and the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, articulated in his 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery: "Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery."Footnote2

But "White" didn't correspond to a neat definition. Italian, Greek, and Irish immigrants, many of whom were not Protestants, weren't considered White, nor were Jews. Later, the U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only a "free white person" could become a naturalized U.S. citizen, adding citizenship as a benefit of being legally "White." Between 1878 and 1952, a series of at least fifty-two court cases, known as the "prerequisite cases," clarified and expanded the list of people who were "White" in the eyes of the law.Footnote3

Meanwhile, the "one-drop rule," which was the basis for some laws in the United States, held that if any of your ancestors were Black, you could not be considered White. This fluidity—this invention—of what it means to be White is captured in a quote by W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay "The Souls of White Folk": "The discovery of personal whiteness among the world's peoples is a very modern thing—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed."Footnote4 The far-reaching consequences of being included in the classification of "White" and the near arbitrariness of the definition, legally and culturally, illustrate the power of labels and of identity—and the power of those who make decisions about those labels and language.

The Opportunity to Reform

In recent years, a groundswell of effort has risen to expand the vocabulary of personal identity and empower people to choose their own labels. Or to create new ones. Or to eschew labels entirely. Much of the momentum derives from social justice movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and in the United States it is fueled by political forces that have seen states squaring off over issues related to gender identity, voting rights, abortion rights, and immigration, to name a few. If there is any bright side to this division and acrimony, it could be that the United States and the world have an opportunity to move past long-standing labels and find out how people see themselves. As terms such as nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, intersex, and others work their way into mainstream usage, some people will seek to understand what the terms mean, what they don't mean, and how to use them. They might wonder how the term transgender differs from transsexual or transvestite and why these other terms have fallen out of general usage. They might decide to find out why sexual orientation is favored over sexual preference. In countless other examples, a reconsideration of vocabulary and usage creates an opening for people to better understand their friends and family and neighbors and colleagues and even people they see as adversaries. Evolution of language alone won't reform attitudes and dispel prejudice, but changes in the lived world can't happen without a reexamination of the ways we use language to reflect and influence the world around us.

An Organizational Pledge

At EDUCAUSE, part of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is to shine a light on the role that language plays, both how it can cause pain and how it can create environments that allow everyone to be their full, authentic selves. This applies both internally as an association and externally for the higher education technology community we serve. Developing the EDUCAUSE Inclusive Language Guide has been an important part of this work, in part because the guide enables us to use consistent, intentional language in the resources we produce and also because it provides an opportunity to explore habits and assumptions that we all carry with us.

When I began working on this language guide, I didn't know how much I didn't know. What started as an effort to bring uniformity to the terminology we use quickly showed itself to be a rather different undertaking, one that drew me into etymologies and fiercely held opinions and one internet rabbit hole after another. Ours is neither the first nor the last such guide to be assembled, and combing through numerous other DEI style guides made clear to me that the objective isn't to arrive at "the right answers" but, rather, to spend earnest effort to reach a considered set of choices about how we, as an association, will use language—the terms we choose to use, the ones we choose to avoid, and the rationale behind those choices.

All manner of biases and cultural history are caught up in language, often hiding in plain sight. We've heard gendered terms such as freshman and mankind so often and for so long that it's easy to lose sight of the exclusion inherent in those words. We say that someone suffers from a disability without thinking that people with disabilities don't see themselves as suffering from anything, except maybe other people's pity.

Before I started this project, I never quite understood the difference between Latino/Latina (from Latin America) and Hispanic (from Spanish-speaking countries). A woman from Spain is Hispanic but not Latina. A man from Argentina is Latino and Hispanic. Either might identify as White. People from Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking nation, are Latino but not Hispanic. My brother's wife and my sister's husband are both of Mexican descent. Their kids, my six nieces, are White, Hispanic, and Latina.

My colleagues and I researched and debated terms such as LatinX and BIPOC, ultimately deciding not to take a position on either of those terms at this time. Some people who would be included within those labels find them to be offensive or misguided, whereas others say the terms suit them just fine. Some people prefer the term Black, while others insist on African American, and still others find either one acceptable. The term queer, outside the context of sexual orientation, means "differing from usual or normal," which is why long ago it was recruited as a slur. Many in the LGBTQIA+ community now embrace the word and use it proudly to describe themselves. Consensus about the terminology people choose in expressing their identity is rare. If you want to know how people see themselves—in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion, or anything else—ask.

Not Just for Editors

The work of developing an inclusive language guide involves looking under as many linguistic rocks as possible, understanding the ways language—inadvertently or otherwise—constrains, offends, and denies legitimacy. From there we can change how we speak and write. Many members of the EDUCAUSE staff and community contributed to the work, which represents the collective learning and negotiation of many thoughtful, passionate people.

By design, the EDUCAUSE Inclusive Language Guide not only lists language recommendations but also explains the reasoning behind them and provides links where the curious can find additional—sometimes contradictory—information and opinions. The guide isn't intended to cover all possible terms or usages. Rooted as it is in the EDUCAUSE mission, it focuses on those issues most germane to what we as editors and writers see in our work, including a section on terminology particular to technology fields.

The guide expresses the language choices that we are adopting at EDUCAUSE. We hope that it is educational and informative, but the guide is not linguistic advocacy. Our intention isn't to sway anyone's personal decisions about language but, rather, to articulate the language guidance we will follow and the reasons behind our choices. Language doesn't stand still, and as it evolves, we will expand, update, and modify the guide. We have included a "Submit a Suggestion" link and encourage you to use the link to submit feedback, ideas, and/or objections. We have received and implemented terrific suggestions from the community so far, and we look forward to continuing the conversation. Underlying this work is our faith that although no set of choices for language and usage will please everyone, the work of creating, digesting, and applying the guide is valuable and important. We invite you to use the guide as a jumping-off point for compiling your own guide or for initiating discussions in your IT organization, at your institution, and with your friends or family.

Labels (and mislabels) can be tenacious. The effort to change how we name things and people and the way those appellations influence (and are influenced by) how we perceive people and the world has to be intentional, conscious, and sustained. Words—and the laws, practices, and attitudes that words instantiate—can be hurtful and harmful. Progress is marked by making a decision to raise awareness and by becoming ever more thoughtful about the way we speak, write, and behave. Progress is marked by choosing your own answer to the question "What are you?"


  1. "Why Obama Chooses 'Black' over 'Biracial,'" NPR, January 9, 2008; "Obama's True Colors: Black, White . . . or Neither," NBC News, December 14, 2008. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Robert P. Baird, "The Invention of Whiteness: The Long History of a Dangerous Idea," The Guardian, April 20, 2021; Katharine Gerbner, "Most People Think 'Whiteness' Is Innate; They're Wrong: It Was Created to Keep Black People from Voting," Washington Post, April 27, 2018; "Dr. Eric Williams' 'Capitalism and Slavery' Finally Published in UK Eighty Years Later," Caribbean Camera, January 28, 2022. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Matthew Wills, "How 'Prerequisite Cases' Tried to Define Whiteness," JSTOR Daily, September 4, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. "The 'One Drop Rule' in America, a Story," n.d., accessed April 25, 2022; "The Souls of White Folk," chapter two in W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920), pp. 29–30. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

Gregory Dobbin is Senior Editor at EDUCAUSE.

© 2022. Gregory Dobbin. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.