Foundational Concepts

Foundational concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion include words and phrases that apply broadly across many categories. These terms may also be used in addition to more specific terms, such as discrimination being combined with age, race, gender, or other groups. Foundational concepts often serve in introductory capacities.

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EquityExplicit or Conscious Bias
Identity-First and Person-First LanguageImpact
Implicit or Unconscious BiasInclusion
IntentIntent versus Impact
Intersecting IdentitiesIntersectionality
OppressionPerformative or Optical Allyship
Table of terms for foundational concepts

-ism. By itself, a neutral suffix or collective term. In suffix form, -ism is a practice, process, belief, or attitude referred to by the word preceding the suffix.13 In an explicitly DEI perspective, the context for -ism is derogatory. When used as a suffix, -ism denotes discrimination and oppression based on the presence of a specific attribute, which precedes the suffix. When used as a collective term, -isms describe actions, attitudes, or structures that are oppressive and discriminatory.4, 13

-misia. A suffix based on the Greek word for hate or hatred.2 Usage is shifting towards -misia instead of -phobia to correct ableist language. Words using the suffix -phobia reflect intense fear, often diagnosed as mental health disorders. Using -phobia as a suffix to describe oppressive and discriminatory behavior inaccurately aligns that behavior with fear instead of hate.

Accomplice. When the action an ally takes includes risk to themself or their social status.5

Accountability. Refers to the maintenance and support of ideals and actions while upholding values and community beliefs. Accountability is visible and outcomes-oriented, not performative. Accountability may be responsive, especially after something has been done wrong.1

Ally. A person who takes action in recognition of their own privilege and to work in solidarity with oppressed groups towards justice.7 Related terms include accomplice and performative or optical allyship.

Anti-Racism. The active process of identifying and challenging racism, by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices, and attitudes, to redistribute power in an equitable manner.12 The work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life.16

Belonging. A feeling or sense of being accepted, recognized, and affirmed as a full member of a larger community. When an individual can fully participate and thrive as part of a larger group.3, 6, 9

Bias. A form of prejudice in favor of or against people or ideas when compared to others, usually in unfair ways; often results from quick categorizations.4, 5 Forms of bias include implicit or unconscious bias and explicit or conscious bias.

Discrimination. Prejudiced treatment of a person on the basis of the social groups to which they belong, as well as stereotypes about those groups. Often includes actions related to employment, education, housing, banking, and political rights.5, 8

Diversity. In the sociopolitical sense, refers to the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. Includes both visible attributes or characteristics and those that are less readily seen.15 In an explicitly DEI context, often refers to the work of fostering an increased diversity of people within institutional and community spaces.

Equity. Equity assumes difference and takes difference into account to ensure a fair process and, ultimately, a fair (or equitable) outcome. Equity recognizes that some groups were and are disadvantaged in accessing opportunities and are therefore underrepresented or marginalized in many organizations and institutions. The effects of that exclusion often linger systemically within organizational policies, practices, and procedures. Equity means increasing diversity by improving conditions of disadvantaged groups.15

Explicit or Conscious Bias. Bias that exists within conscious thoughts or feelings.20

Identity-First and Person-First Language. Identity- and person-first language are two ways of describing people in relation to their identities, experiences, and backgrounds. For example, “disabled person” (identity-first) versus “person living with a disability” (person-first). Proponents of person-first language believe that it is important to always center the individual rather than their (potentially) stigmatizing experience. Proponents of identity-first language believe that a person’s (potentially) stigmatizing experience can be an essential part of their identity and that decentering it is a denial of their lived experience. There are strong feelings on both sides. There are appropriate situations to use either form, but it’s most important if at all possible to speak about people using whichever form they prefer.10

Impact. The effect that words, actions, or circumstances have on someone. This may or may not match the way the words or actions were intended by the person who said or performed them.3

Implicit or Unconscious Bias. Bias that exists outside of conscious thoughts or feelings; often undermines actions, intentions, and beliefs.20

Inclusion. Inclusion means an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully; are valued for their distinctive skills, experiences, and perspectives; have equal access to resources and opportunities; and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.15

Intent. The original purpose behind someone’s words or actions. The words or actions may not be received in this way by the recipient; in these cases, it is said that the intent did not match the impact.3

Intent vs Impact. DEI spaces consider the difference between intent and impact. We often place emphasis on impact as part of developing more equitable spaces.

Intersecting Identities. The concept that an individual’s identity consists of multiple, intersecting factors, including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, disability, class (past and present), religious beliefs, sexual identity and sexual expression. Intersecting identities differs from intersectionality due to the presence and amount of discrimination, inequality, power, and privilege involved.11

Intersectionality. The complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, ableism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. Intersectionality is a lens to see how forms of inequality operate with and exacerbate each other.13, 18

Invisible. From a DEI perspective, refers to characteristics, attributes, and/or identities that cannot be readily seen. These include, but are not limited to, disability, socioeconomic background, religious beliefs, sexual identity, and more.14

Justice. The presence of systems and supports (e.g. policies, practices, norms) that achieve and sustain fair treatment, equitable opportunities, and outcomes for people of all races. Includes systematic, proactive reinforcement.5a

Marginalization. Refers to actions and processes that exclude, ignore, or relegate a person or group to the outer edge of a group, society, or community.8

Microaggression. Everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to targeted individuals or groups based solely upon their marginalized status.19a

Oppression. Oppression combines power and prejudice. The systematic subjugation of one group by a more powerful group for the social, economic, and political benefit of the more powerful group. Oppression fuses institutional and systemic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice in a complex web of relationships and structures.4, 17

Performative or Optical Allyship. When someone from a privileged group states support and solidarity with an oppressed group in a way that is not helpful, and is motivated by reward rather than a true sense of solidarity.14

Power. The ability to exercise one’s will over others. Power occurs when some individuals or groups wield a greater advantage over others, thereby allowing them greater access to and control over resources.6

Prejudice. An attitude based on limited information, often on stereotypes. Prejudice is usually, but not always, negative. Positive and negative prejudices alike, especially when directed toward oppressed people, are damaging because they deny the individuality of the person. In some cases, the prejudices of oppressed people (“you can’t trust the police”) are necessary for survival.17

Privilege. Systemic favoring, enriching, valuing, validating and including of certain social identities over others. Individuals cannot ‘opt out’ of systems of privilege; rather these systems are inherent to the society in which we live.5

Visible. From a DEI perspective, refers to characteristics, attributes, and/or identities that can be readily seen or perceived. These include, but are not limited to, physical appearance, age, gender expression, some types of physical disability, and more.14


  1. Accountability and White Anti-Racist Organizing: Stories from Our Work, Bonnie Berman Cushing with Lila Cabbil, Margery Freeman, Jeff Hitchcock and Kimberly Richards (2010). Quoted in Glossary, Racial Equity Tools (2020) and Terms Related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, SJSU (2023).
  2. Anti-Oppression, Simmons University Library (2023).
  3. DEI Glossary, Cornell University (n.d.).
  4. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Glossary, UW College of the Environment (2023).
  5. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Key Terms and Definitions, National Association of Counties.
  6. Dynamic System of Power, Privilege, and Oppression, The, from Open Source Leadership Strategies (archived copy from November 4, 2020).
  7. Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Glossary of Terms, Pacific University (n.d.).
  8. Glossary of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) Terms, Harvard Human Resources (n.d.).
  9. Inclusive Language Guidelines, American Psychological Association (2021).
  10. Intersectionality vs. intersecting identities [presentation slides], Pharoah Bolding (2020).
  11. Key Equity Terms & Concepts: A Glossary for Shared Understanding, Center for the Study of Social Policy (2019).
  12. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster (2023).
  13. Performative Allyship, Technium Social Sciences Journal (2020).
  14. ODLOS Glossary of Terms, American Library Association (2017).
  15. Racial Justice in Education, National Education Association (2018).
  16. Racism Defined, Dismantling Racism Works (2021).
  17. She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today. Kimberlé Crenshaw interview with Katy Steinmetz, Time (2020).
  18. Terms Related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, San Jose State University (2023).
  19. What is Bias?, Aara’L Yarbar, ADVANCEGeo Partnership (2023).