Terms That Confuse Many of Us

Image: Blue background with white words Inhale Exhale, picture of sun, mountain, water. Art by Mike Pinette on Amplifer Art

There are a lot of terms/words related to race or identity that people use interchangeably but really aren’t synonyms. Race and ethnicity, equity as a catch-all phrase for anything having to do with identity or race, immigrant and refugee. Each of these words has unique means and it is important to know the differences so we are precise with our language. When we use the words interchangeably it changes the meaning and at times can take away the focus from who needs to be seen.

Notes – Language and meanings change all the time. What I am writing today is what I know. In a few months or a year, some of these terms and meanings may change. These are oversimplified definitions to give you a starting idea, but each of these terms and concepts are exceedingly claggy and deserve a lot more time and learning.

Equity / Equality – Equity is about acknowledging different people need different things to achieve justice. Equality says we treat everyone the same regardless of their situation, circumstances, or histories. Note equity is not a synonym for race, people sometimes use the term equity for other social identities gender, income, disability. If you are talking about race, please be clear in saying racial equity.

Race / Ethnicity – Race is the larger categories, e.g. American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Latino/e, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, White. Ethnicity are the sub-categories within a race group (e.g. Chinese, Somali, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, etc.). Ethnicity is often tied to cultural and ancestorial facets including language, cultural beliefs, food, religion, etc.

Nationality / Citizenship – This one is a little trickier to understand. I had to consult several websites before I felt like I got a grasp of the concept of nationality. Nationality is often tied to a place of birth or naturalization. A person’s nationality is a constitutional relationship between the state and the person. It is often seen as part of their identity. Citizenship is a constitutional status where a person is recognized as a citizen of the country, and afforded the rights of citizenship of a country. Citizenship can change throughout a person’s lifetime.

Interpreter / translator – Translators take a written piece and translate it into another language, such as taking an English newsletter and rewriting it into Spanish. Translators should have fluency in reading and writing in the target languages. Interpreters do in-the-moment, simultaneous, or almost immediately after transposing of speech into another language. Interpreters need to preserve the integrity of the message, communicate meaning and idioms, and do not rely on secondary materials (e.g. reference material, dictionaries, written copies of speeches).  

Immigrant / Refugee – Immigrants leave one country to resettle in another country. Refugees move/leave from their home country often out of fear, persecution, war, natural disasters, increasingly climate change, etc. In many cases refugees often cannot return to their home countries.

Gender Unicorn from Trans Student Educational Resources — translations available on their website

Sex assigned at birth / Gender – Sex assigned at birth are female, male, intersex. Gender identity female/woman/girl, male/man/boy, other genders. Gender expression does not always equate to gender identity, see Gender Unicorn image to the right. Learn more at Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), thanks to R and K for the resource.

Racism / Discrimination – Racism is the belief that one racial group is superior over another. Discrimination is treating people differently based on perceived differences (e.g. skin color, race, religion, disability, etc.). Some literature refers to racism being a subcategory of discrimination. There is no such thing as reverse racism (white people claiming racism), they can claim discrimination but not racism since we live in a society that caters to whiteness.

 Trigger / Offensive / Content Warning – Trigger is a psychology term, sometimes associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People cannot control what triggers them, often due to past trauma or histories. Offensive is not the same as triggering, it could mean something is annoying, undesirable, angering, or irritating. Content warning lets readers or audience members know a sensitive subject may come up and allows people to opt-out or disengage from the media.

White / Caucasian – White is a race group. Caucasians is referring to anyone from the Caucasus region which spans both Europe and Asia, not a race group. If you are white, say “I’m white,” not “I’m Caucasian.”

Thank you to friends for contributing ideas to this post.

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