Wait – Isn’t This Politically Correct? … Actually, No.

We all want to use language that values all people and doesn’t offend anyone, but it can get difficult to navigate what is offensive and what is not. For instance, it is better to talk about a “person who has been incarcerated” or “people who use illicit drugs” than an “inmate,” a “convict,” or “addicts.” These last three terms dehumanize people, reducing their entire identities to experiences that others judge them for, while the first two terms emphasize their humanity and imply that being incarcerated or using illicit drugs are some experiences they have had, among many others, and do not define who or what they are.

So the same holds true for anything, right? It is always best to say “a person who…”? Actually, no.

Autistic people, for instance, are often offended when called “people with Autism.” So what’s the difference? When is person-first language the way to go, and when is identity-first language best?

The difference is whether the identifier in question is inseparable from the person’s identity. Autistic people, for example, cannot be separated from their Autism. Is an all-pervasive aspect of who they are. Calling them “people with Autism” implies that they are separate from their Autism, that their value as people exists outside of it, and even that the Autism itself is a negative with which they must cope, which reduces their value as a person – hence the need to add “with.” Calling them “Autistic people” asserts their value as Autistics, without implying a false separation from their Autism or anything negative about it.

People who have been incarcerated should be seen as human beings apart from their incarceration, neither their identities nor their value defined by it. Try doing this with elements obviously integral to someone’s identity, and it becomes clear how silly it would be to use terms like “people with Black ethnicity” instead of “Black people” or “people with Hindu beliefs” instead of “Hindus” or “Hindu people.”

Here are a few more examples of when to use person-first and when to use identity-first language:

Person-First Identity First
People living with HIV/AIDS Deaf people
People in conflict with the law Queer people
People who trade sex Asian people or Asians
People who inject drugs Muslims or Muslim people

*This post is based on “Identity-First Language” by Lydia Brown. Read her full, excellent article here:


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