Glossary of Terms

The language used to describe diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in U.S. higher education changes often and can be considered complex. The glossary below is included to clarify and offer working definitions for some of the terms in this document. It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list and that these words can carry multiple meanings based on our perspectives and worldviews. The office of the dean of equity and inclusion is always willing to engage in conversation about the words used in this document or any other diversity-related terminology.

Access: Typically refers to the ways in which educational institutions and policies strive to ensure students have equal and equitable educational opportunities. Increasing access generally requires schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs.

Accessibility: The extent to which services and/or facilities are readily approachable and usable by people who are differently abled.

Ally/allies: Member(s) of dominant social groups (e.g. men, White people, straight people) who are interested in ending the system of oppression that gives them greater privilege and power based on their social group membership.

Bias: Prejudice; an inclination or preference, especially one that interferes with impartial judgment.

Cisgender: a gender identity in which a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.

Compositional Diversity: Compositional or structural diversity refers to the demographic makeup of an institution, community, or other group; specifically, the proportionality of people from various social identities.

Critical Analysis: Contemplation of past and present experiences, as well as future possibilities, by critiquing multiple perspectives on a story or narrative. 

Cultural Competence: The ability to effectively and empathetically work and engage with people of different social identities and backgrounds in order to provide safe and accountable spaces for dialogue and discourse.

Discrimination: Actions, based on conscious or unconscious prejudice, which favor one group over others in the provision of goods, services, or opportunities.

Diversity: Refers to the characteristics that make individuals or groups different from another. Note: an individual person should not be described as “diverse” though they may have diverse interests or social identities. 

Ethnicity: The shared sense among a group of people of a common heritage, ancestry, or historical past. Ethnicity is a distinct concept from race, as illustrated by the fact that Hispanics, designated an ethnic group in the U.S., may nevertheless be of any race.

Equity: To treat everyone fairly (as opposed to equality, which focuses on treating everyone the same). An equity emphasis seeks to render justice by deeply considering structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harms other social groups/communities.

Full Participation: “An affirmative value focused on creating institutions that enable people, whatever their identity, background, or institutional position, to thrive, realize their capabilities, engage meaningfully in institutional life, and contribute to the flourishing of others” (Sturm et al., 2011, p. 3).

Identity Development: The complex process by which people come to develop a sense and understanding of themselves within the context of cultural demands and social norms. Despite being associated with adolescence, identity development is an ongoing process that continues throughout adulthood where one forms an identity within a larger and transitional cultural context. Moreover, cultural factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation also affect the identity formation that take place on the way to and through adulthood.

Inclusion: An intentional effort to transform the status quo by creating opportunities for those who have been historically marginalized. An inclusion focus emphasizes outcomes of diversity rather than assuming that increasing compositional diversity automatically creates equity in access/opportunity, or an enhanced organizational climate.

Indigenous/Indigeneity: Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world (e.g. Native Americans / American Indians) 

Intergroup Dialogue: “Broadly defined as a face-to-face facilitated learning experience that brings together students from different social identity groups over a sustained period of time to understand their commonalities and differences, examine the nature and impact of societal inequalities, and explore ways of working together toward greater equality and justice” (Zúñiga et al., 2007, p. 2).

Intersectionality: Coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and based upon Black feminist ideology, intersectionality is an analytic framework used to identify interlocking systems of power impacting the most marginalized persons in a society. The theory began as a way of exploring the unique oppression experienced by women of color in U.S. society and, today, is more broadly applied to the intersections among all social identity groups.

-Ism: A social phenomenon and psychological state where prejudice is accompanied by the power to systemically enact it.

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

Microaggressions: Commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults based on membership in historically marginalized or oppressed social groups.

Oppression: A system that maintains advantage and disadvantage based on stereotyped social group memberships. 1. Operates on many levels and happens both intentionally and unintentionally. 2. Results from the use of institutional power and privilege where one person or group benefits at the expense of another.

Power: The notion that members of majority groups are able to assert control (indirectly or directly) over others. 1. The ability to name or define. 2. The ability to decide. 3. The ability the set the rule, standard, or policy. 4. The ability to change the rule, standard, or policy to serve your needs, wants or desires. 5. The ability to influence decisions makers to make choices in favor of your cause, issue or concern.

Prejudice: A preconceived judgment about a person or group of people; usually indicating negative bias.

Privilege: A right, license, or exemption from duty or liability granted as a special benefit, advantage, or favor; the idea that there are unearned benefits associated with being a member of a dominant group.

Social Identity: Involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior.

Social Justice: 1. An anti-oppression orientation to social and political organization. 2. The process and goal of addressing the root causes of institutional and structural “isms.” 3. A vision of the world where all groups of people can live (and be perceived) as fully human on all levels (personal, social, institutional, and structural). 4. A vision of the world not rooted in the dominance of any one group over all others.

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.

Subjectivity/Subject Position: A person’s sense of self (as a subject) that informs their perception of and engagement with the world. Subjectivity is often used in distinction from “identity” that tends to define “self” as “object” that inheres a fixed set of traits.

Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term that is correctly used as an adjective, not a noun, thus “transgender people” is appropriate but “transgenders” is often viewed as disrespectful.

Underrepresented: Describes the condition of having a lower proportion of representation of a particular social identity group within an organization, community, or society as compared with that group’s representation in the general population.

Universal Design: The design of buildings, products, or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability, or other factors. 

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

This resource was compiled and adapted from existing resources provided by the National Conference for Community and Justice, The Glossary of Education Reform, The National Center for Transgender Equality, the United Nations Working Group for Indigenous Peoples, and the YWCA Social Justice Glossary


  • Sturm, S., Eatman, T., Saltmarch, J. & Bush, A. (2011). Full participation: Building the architecture for diversity and community engagement in higher education. Imagining America, Paper 17.
  • Zúñiga, X., Nagda, B. R. A., Chesler, M., & Cytron-Walker, A. (2007). Intergroup dialogue in higher education: Definitions, origins, and practices. ASHE Higher Education Report32(4), 1-128.