By: Irfan Toor  • February 26, 2024  •  (4 min read)

Understanding identity is one of the foundations of doing equity and anti-oppressive work. Over the years and during many conversations, I’ve often switched back and forth between identity first (I am a brown man) and person first language (I am a man who is brown), depending on the context of the conversation, my own experiences and the perspectives and the person I’m speaking with.

Continuing my conversations with Karen Timm (DDSB) from a previous blog, we talked a lot about identity first versus person first language. Karen recognizes that both options exist – some people describe themselves as an autistic person and others describe themselves as a person with autism – but she, like a growing majority, chooses identity first because her neurology is not an accessory; it is who she is. Her view is to, “Honour the preference of people when it is known but also honour the preference of the people who are present.” What kind of language do school staff use and engage in as they are speaking about students? Are they considering the Neurodivergent staff and colleagues who are also present in the conversation?

I’ve learned about the focus on scientific classification as being a great project of colonialism in the 1600s and beyond. By classifying objects and living things, people were also able to create a system of value and of deficit. Anything that didn’t fit the highest description of normal (white European males of higher classes) was inherently thought of as less value. Patriarchy, racism, classism, ableism, etc. all stem from this ‘great’ project. Ableism is considered by many to be the foundation of oppression that allows the other ‘isms’ to persist and progress.

I have spent much of my life with a focus on person first language. As a racial minority growing up in a small town in the 70s, what made me different was definitely perceived and named as a deficit, so I strived to be recognized for all the other parts and abilities that would show that I was capable and had gifts and strengths. I hoped that my brownness would be overlooked and I could be seen as a person first, and my accomplishments could be recognized. As I continue to learn and grow, I see myself using person first language more often, but being in my mid-50s also means I am more confident in my skills and abilities and less concerned about the perceptions or recognition from others.

As we recognize how we have been influenced by colonial and oppressive thinking in science, history and many other aspects of life, we are shifting our thinking, and many groups are claiming their identities back and centering them through identity first language. This is a good thing, as it helps to dismantle the value system and the deficit thinking that has been inherently attached to diverse aspects of identity.

Irfan Toor is the Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Ontario Principals’ Council and can be reached at