What Is In A Name

Dr. Debs Advice

What’s In A Name–They, Ze, She, He
Dr. Deborah Ashton, Chief Psychologist & Head of Behavioral Practices & Research Diversity MBA


The first tenet of inclusion is respect. Respect is not a one-way street. Respect is not a two-way street.  Respect is a traffic circle or a roundabout. Everyone must be willing to yield and give others the right of way.

The best way to respect people is to call them what they want to be call.  Most of the transgender women I have known over the decades preferred she and the transgender men wanted to be referred to as he. However, the nomenclature (or pronoun) for a group of people may change over time. It is important to call people the name they want to be called. Given that caveat, statically most cisgender women want to be referred to in the third person singular, she, and most cisgender men want to be referred to in the third person singular, he.

Part of inclusion is to be able to flex, but not having to walk on eggshells. Part of understanding the traffic circle is that if a person states they prefer a nonbinary pronoun, such as, they or ze, people who prefer the traditional binary pronoun should be respectful and flex by using the nonbinary when referring to the person, who prefers they or ze and vise-versa. The person who prefer the exception to the traditional grammatical rule should be in an inclusive environment that will respect their/zir request for the nonbinary gender-neutral preference, i.e., yield and give the right of way.

Individuals who belong to a particular group are the arbitrators of the appropriate nomenclature for their group. In the 1970s and 1980s, many Latinos and Latinas took exception to the term Hispanic. They felt it was a term coined by the Nixon administration for Spanish-speaking people. If asked, they preferred names that were relevant to their ancestry. For instance, on the East Coast, depending on the ancestry, Puerto Rican, Cubano, Dominican, were preferred designations or on the West Coast, Chicano was preferred for individuals of Mexican descent. And while Hispanic is a nonbinary term, it has not been embraced by people who prefer nonbinary pronouns. The preference is Latinx.

The pronoun controversy made me think about the early 1990s, when people started using African-Americans for Black Americans.  I was interviewing a black woman for a director position. She was answering a question regarding how to attract minority students to science, technology, engineering and math. She began her answer with “The best way to attract Hispanics and Blacks–oh, do you prefer Black or African-American?”  I answered, “Since you are Black/African-American, you can use whichever you prefer.”  She preferred, ‘Black”.

Ironically, women have been told for years to own their power and to use I, first person singular, rather than constantly using we, first person plural, in job interviews, so the interviewer would know that she had many successes rather than the team had many successes. Imagine the confusion, the woman who has own her accomplishments and now observing an interviewer is attributing her accomplishments to them, i.e., the team!  Frankly, ze is less confusing as a nonbinary singular pronoun than they. That being said, call people what they prefer whether it is they, ze, she or he.