Race, ethnicity, and nationality

When and how to mention race and ethnicity

Background:

Mentioning someone’s race or ethnicity when it isn’t important to the project can seem biased and can portray the characteristic as unusual or different. Because race is a social construct, the terms to describe race change over time as society changes. For example, “Caucasian” was coined by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach to describe what he thought of as a superior race. Because of the term’s racist origins, the American Psychological Association style, among AP style and others, recommends against using it. Beyond its origins and use to reinforce an inaccurate belief in natural racial categorizations, the term, which refers to people from the Caucasus region, is inaccurate as a synonym for “White.”

Racial and ethnic categories are incredibly broad. They include people who have diverse cultures. For example, the term “Asian” is sometimes used in the US as a shorthand for “East Asian” but generally refers to the entire continent of Asia. Being specific is clearer and avoids homogenizing a diverse group.

People have preferences about how their race and ethnicity are described. For example, “Black” and “African American” are not interchangeable. “Black” is a broader term because it includes those who aren’t US citizens and those who identify more with their heritage from a place outside Africa.

Recommendation:

Mention a person’s race or ethnicity only if it is important to the project. Follow people’s preferences on how to describe their race or ethnicity. When a preference between “Black” and “African American” is not known, generally use “Black” instead of “African American.” Similarly, follow a person’s preference in using “Native American” or “American Indian,” and use a specific nation’s name when possible. Do not use “Caucasian” as a synonym for “White.” Be appropriately specific. Instead of calling someone Latino or Hispanic, for example, describe them with the specific country—Cuban American or Brazilian American, for instance. But if a study looks at all Hispanic and Latino people, then using that broader categorization would be appropriate.

Examples:

Use:

Michael S. Regan wants to limit the amount of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that companies can emit.

Avoid:

Michael S. Regan, who is Black

Use:

Erick Carreira is the first Latino to head the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Avoid:

Erick Carreira, a Latino, will head


People of color

Background:

Lumping all people of color together under one term erases important differences between groups. In addition, using “people of color” or “person of color” can be seen as a euphemism for specific racial groups, such as Black people, and an empty gesture of solidarity. Recognizing that different races face different struggles and are treated differently is important, just as it is sometimes important to focus on the shared challenges of being marginalized because of race or ethnicity.

Recommendation:

When mentioning race, think about what level of specificity is appropriate. For example, if you are talking about the shared experiences of many people of diverse races and ethnicities who are not White, then “people of color” may be appropriate. But if you are talking about specific racial and ethnic categories, then name them. And avoid using “person of color” to describe a specific individual unless that person wants to be identified that way. Instead, say the person’s race, if that information is necessary. 

Examples:

Use:

After a police officer killed George Floyd, people participated in protests of police brutality against Black people.

Avoid:

against people of color

Use:

In the survey, Hispanic and Asian respondents were the most concerned about the new policy.

Avoid:

people of color were the most concerned

Use:

Professors of color often do more invisible work than their White counterparts. (OK if talking about people of color in general and not a specific racial group.)

Use:

Kamala Harris made history as the first woman of color nominated to be vice president. (In this case, “woman of color” is appropriate because it shows that she is not just the first Black woman to be vice president but the first woman of any race besides White to be nominated.)


Minorities, non-White

Background:

The word “minority” is often inaccurate when used to refer to people of color because that group is sometimes the numerical majority. (Some people use the term “majority minority” to explain that people historically referred to as minorities are now becoming the majority in certain areas, but the term is confusing and unclear.) In addition, “minority” has a connotation of being lesser than; it reinforces the marginalization of people of color. The same issues apply to the term “underrepresented minority,” which many in higher education use to describe people of color whose population in a specialty is lower than that in the broader population. Some people use the term “minoritized” to indicate that a group is treated as inferior. But “marginalized,” a word with the same meaning, is clearer. Some people note that using “marginalized,” “underserved,” and “underrepresented” focuses on people’s powerlessness rather than their assets and their potential and that “underserved” makes an assumption about who is doing the serving. In addition, using words like “oppressed” and “disadvantaged” without additional context may emphasize people’s lack of agency rather than the systems that created inequities. But others say terms like “marginalized” and “racialized” make people aware of unfair systems. For example, people sometimes use “racialized” to indicate that society created racial categories.

The term “non-White” defines people by what they lack instead of what they are. It sets up White as the default, the category that gets to be named, and everyone else as other. The term can also be vague. For example, the US Census Bureau defines “White” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa,” whereas many people from the Middle East and North Africa may not self-identify as White. And people commonly use “non-White” colloquially to include Hispanic and Latino people, but people can identify as both White and Hispanic, for example. So when discussing survey results or data, more specificity is important.

Recommendation:

When it is necessary to refer to people in broad groups instead of specific racial and ethnic groups, avoid using “minority” and “non-White” to refer to people of color. Acceptable alternatives in addition to “people of color” are “underrepresented racial and ethnic groups” and “marginalized racial and ethnic groups,” depending on your meaning. But use care, as focusing on a lack of power or agency with adjectives like “underserved” and “underrepresented” may further alienate people. Using these words as verbs, however, is appropriate, as in “Institutions continue to underserve students of color.”

“Underrepresented” establishes a comparison (underrepresented in a subpopulation compared with representation in a larger group), so use that term only when a comparison exists and only when people are truly underrepresented (for example, in some sciences, not all people of color are underrepresented). And “underrepresented group” (without specifying which group) can refer to any category of people who are not represented—whether by gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or another characteristic. So when using “underrepresented,” generally specify the kind of group you are referring to. 

Alternatives to “underrepresented minorities” include “underrepresented people of color” and naming the specific racial and ethnic groups. 

If you must use the term “minority,” specify what kind of minority (e.g., racial, ethnic, gender). Unless a source self-identifies as minoritized, use an alternative, such as “marginalized.” Do not use the term “majority minority.”

Examples:

Use:

“MEP was one of the first higher education programs created to help students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)” (C&EN, June 6, 2021).

Avoid:

to help minority students

Use:

ACS Committee on Minority Affairs (official name)

Use:

“In addition to fixing those problems, federal science agencies should start recruiting from a wider array of universities, such as those the US categorizes as minority-serving institutions” (C&EN, March 20, 2021).

Avoid:

such as minority-serving institutions (Although the US government uses the term “minority-serving institution,” leaving it without an editorial comment could make it seem like a term created by the author.)

Use:

“The Reagan-Udall Foundation for the Food and Drug Administration, a nonprofit that works with the FDA, has conducted listening sessions with essential workers and Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people to hear their concerns about the vaccines and ultimately address them in future FDA messaging” (C&EN, Jan. 25, 2021).

Avoid:

essential workers and underrepresented people (It’s unclear what larger group the people are underrepresented in and whether they are underrepresented because of race, socioeconomic status, or another factor. It’s clearer to state the specific group names.)


BIPOC, BAME, POC

Background:

The term “BIPOC” is a noun that stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” The intent is to center Black and Indigenous people in the fight for racial equity in the US and to highlight the unique forms of oppression they face. Proponents of the term say that it makes Indigenous people more visible, highlights anti-Blackness, and helps avoid homogenizing all people of color. Critics of the term point to confusion over its meaning—separating Black people and Indigenous people from people of color makes it seem as if “people of color” does not include Black and Indigenous people (which may be why some people define the term as “Black, Indigenous, and other people of color”). Others say that the term creates racial hierarchies and is inappropriate as a blanket term, such as when other racial groups should be centered or when talking about people of color outside the US. The term also uses “Black” and “Indigenous” as nouns instead of adjectives (see “Races and ethnicities as adjectives”).

The term “BAME” stands for “Black, Asian, and minority ethnic” and is more common in the UK than the US. “POC” is an abbreviation for “people of color.” 

The terms “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” “Black, Asian, and minority ethnic,” and “people of color” lump several diverse groups together, reducing individuals with distinct identities to a single, broad category. Shortening these terms to their abbreviations, while a convenient shorthand, reduces clarity for the audience and works against the intent of raising awareness of marginalized groups. When people use “BIPOC” instead of “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” they don’t take the time to name the groups the term is intended to center. A 2021 statement titled #BAMEOver by Inc Arts UK says, “Collective terminology is necessary: acronyms are not. Nobody wants to be reduced to an acronym. Especially an acronym that is inaccurate.”

Recommendation:

Do not use the abbreviations “BIPOC,” “BAME,” or “POC.” Generally use “people of color” instead of “Black, Indigenous, and people of color” or “Black, Asian, and minority ethnic” when it is necessary to use a broad categorization of people who are not White. When possible, be more specific. (See also “People of color.”)

Example:

Use:

We encourage Black, Latino, and Indigenous people to apply. (If these specific groups are who you are referring to)

Avoid:

BIPOC to apply


Capitalization and spelling of races, ethnicities, and nationalities

Background:

Most races, ethnicities, and nationalities have long been capitalized—words like “Asian American,” “Jamaican,” and “American Indian.” But until recently, most mainstream style guides had recommended lowercasing “White” and “Black,” seeing them as colors and not proper nouns. Now, in a shift prompted in large part by the murder of George Floyd and the resulting reckoning with race in the US, most style guides recommend capitalizing “Black” in recognition of and respect for the shared history and culture of many Black people. This change follows a style decision that publications serving Black communities, like Essence, Ebony, and the Chicago Defender, took years ago. For similar reasons of respect and recognition of shared identity, the words “Native” and “Indigenous” are capitalized when referring to Indigenous people.

Style guides differ in their decision to capitalize “White.” Some, like the AP Stylebook, do not capitalize the word because they don’t think White people have the same kind of shared identity that Black people do. Others point to the use of the capitalized “White” by White supremacists. In contrast, proponents of the capitalized “White” say that capitalizing it forces White people to see themselves as racialized and confront their privilege. In addition, proponents say, capitalizing “White” avoids making it look like a neutral standard. In response to the criticism that capitalizing “White” aligns with White supremacists’ use, Kwame Anthony Appiah says in a 2020 Atlantic article, “If the capitalization of white became standard among anti-racists, the supremacists’ gesture would no longer be a provocative defiance of the norm and would lose all force.” 

Hyphenating dual heritages, such as “Asian American,” can show bias by implying that people do not fully belong to one group (in this example, are not fully American). The hyphen also recalls Theodore Roosevelt’s use of “hyphenated Americans” to disparage immigrants and Woodrow Wilson’s suspicion of “any man who carries a hyphen.”

Recommendation:

Capitalize “Black” and “White” when referring to races. Capitalize “Indigenous” when referring to people and culture. Capitalize “Native” when referring to an Indigenous ethnicity. Do not hyphenate races or ethnicities.

Examples:

Use:

We are highlighting the work of historically Black colleges and universities.

Avoid:

historically black colleges and universities

Use:

He is a Native Hawaiian.

Avoid:

native Hawaiian (“Native Hawaiian” and “Hawaiian” refer to the Indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands. As writer Stephanie Launiu explains in a 2021 WanderWisdom article, “Hawaiians are not named for the state (think Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, etc). Unlike these other states, Hawai'i is named after its native people. Living in Hawai'i doesn't make you Hawaiian, it makes you a resident of Hawai'i.”)

Use:

She is a native New Yorker.

Avoid:

Native New Yorker (“Native” in this context does not refer to an Indigenous people as a racial or ethnic group; it refers instead to people born in a place.)

Use:

Researchers interviewed Asian American and Native American students.

Avoid:

Asian-American and Native-American students


Races and ethnicities as adjectives

Background:

Defining people by a single characteristic like race, a social construct, minimizes other parts of their identities. Using the racial descriptors “Black” and “White” as nouns is usually considered offensive. Other words for races and ethnicities, like “Asian” and “Latino,” are commonly used as both nouns and adjectives.

Recommendation:

When referring to race, use “Black” and “White” as adjectives, not nouns, even if you are facing space constraints (a recommendation counter to AP). Other terms, like “Asian,” “Latino,” and “Native American,” may be nouns or adjectives. Do not use “the” before a plural noun used to describe race (e.g., use “Asian people” or “Asians,” not “the Asians”). See also “Avoid labeling people by a characteristic.”

Example:

Use:

“The differences in educational debts owed across genders were smaller for Asian and Black students than for Hispanic, White, and White Hispanic students” (J. Chem. Educ. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c00352).

Avoid:

Blacks than for Hispanics, Whites, and White Hispanics


Brown

Background:

The term “Brown” as a categorization of race is controversial because it has no clear definition. It is seemingly used to refer to any person of color who is not Black, but some people of color, such as some East Asians, do not identify as Brown. “‘Brown’ has been used to describe such a disparate range of people—Latin, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern—that the meaning is often unclear to readers,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, and Phil Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, write in a note on why the Times capitalizes “Black.”

Recommendation:

Avoid using “Brown” as a racial descriptor for groups. Instead, specify the groups you are referring to. If someone identifies as Brown and it is important to mention their race, then capitalize it.

Example:

Use:

 “COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Latino people” (C&EN, May 28, 2021).

Avoid:

affected Black and Brown people


Hispanic, Latino, Latinx

Background:

“Hispanic” generally refers to people of Spanish-speaking origin, whereas “Latina” and “Latino” refer to people of Latin American origin. The terms aren’t interchangeable, although there is some overlap. For example, people from Brazil who do not speak Spanish may identify as Latino, not Hispanic. And people from Spain may identify as Hispanic, not Latino.

Several gender-neutral terms for “Latino” have arisen. These include “Latin@,” “Latine” (pluralized as “Latines”), and “Latinx.” There is a lot of disagreement over the use of “Latinx:” only a small percentage of Hispanic people use “Latinx,” according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2019, and some view the term as a form of linguistic imperialism. But some see “Latinx” as a positive movement to be more inclusive. Similarly, some people use “Chicanx,” “Chican@,” or “Chicane” as gender-neutral alternatives to “Chicano” or “Chicana,” which refer to Americans of Mexican descent.

Note that “Hispanic” and “Latino” are generally defined as ethnicities and can thus include people of various races.

Recommendation:

Use whichever term the individual or group you are referring to prefers. Be specific when possible—for example, “Puerto Rican” or “Brazilian.” If a source prefers gender-neutral terms such as “Latin American,” “Latine,” “Latinx,” or “Chicanx,” use them. But otherwise use “Latinos,” “Hispanic people,” or “Chicanos” to refer to mixed-gender groups.

Examples:

Use:

“The American Chemical Society was among the dozen sponsors of LatinXChem” (C&EN, Sept. 24, 2020). (LatinXChem is the formal name.)

Use:

Latinas and Hispanic women, who are 13.7% of women in the U.S. population, hold 5.8% of science Ph.D. degrees” (Anal. Chem. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.1c00887).


Multiracial, mixed race

Background:

Many terms exist to describe people who have a multiracial background. Some prefer the term “multiracial,” whereas others prefer to limit the term to groups of people and not individuals because they see the term as similar to the way “multicultural” has been used to discuss diversity broadly. Some self-identify as “mixed race,” whereas others view the term as offensive because it calls to mind the stereotype of being confused (e.g., “mixed up”). “Biracial” refers to having two races, so it is not appropriate for people with more than two racial heritages. Others have invented terms to describe their racial identities—for example, “Blaxican” for Black and Mexican, and “mix-d” for mixed race. Yet “some resist any terminology for multiracial people, period,” Leah Donnella says in a 2016 NPR article, and some people prefer to name and describe the specific races. People’s unique racial backgrounds and their environments affect how they choose to define themselves.

Furthermore, 61% of people whose background includes multiple races do not identify as multiracial, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of 1,555 adults in the US. And the way people think about their identity can change over time—shifting from identifying as multiracial to a single race, and vice versa. In fact, psychologist Maria P. P. Root includes “to identify myself differently in different situations” and “to change my identity over my lifetime—and more than once” in her Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People.

Recommendation:

First, remember the guideline to mention race only when it is necessary. If it is necessary, follow the general principle of respecting how an individual wants to be described. And respect that people’s self-description may change over time and depending on where the information will appear. If you are unable to ask how people identify, decide whether it is more appropriate to mention the specific racial background or to use a general term. If a general term is needed, generally use “multiracial” for people of multiple races. Do not use slurs or terms that imply someone is not “pure” (for example, while “mixed race” may be appropriate in certain contexts, “mixed blood” is not). For capturing racial identity on a form or survey, see “Common questions.”

Example:

Use:

“Categorizations of multiracial individuals provide insight into the psychological mechanisms driving social stratification” (Psychol. Sci. 2015, DOI: 10.1177/0956797615596436).


Recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples

Background:

There are more than 5,000 groups of Indigenous peoples, spread over 90 countries, according to the United Nations. Those groups are incredibly diverse and have different preferences around language. For example, while “Indigenous” has become a popular term in international and general contexts, the term is generally discouraged in Australia; the preferred terminology for the original inhabitants of Australia are “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” Meanwhile, people in Canada have moved away from the term “Aboriginal” as a group descriptor. Similarly, while some Indigenous people in the US use “Native” as an adjective (as in "Native American” and “Native traditions”), Indigenous people in Canada often see it as offensive. And Indigenous people in India are generally referred to as “Adivasis.”

One way to recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples is to use the appropriate identity term and be as specific as possible. The broad grouping of “Indigenous” includes country-level terms like “Native Americans” in the US (although some Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives may not view themselves as Native Americans) and “First Nations, Inuit, and Métis” in Canada, and within those categories are individual communities with separate names—some of which are changing to the original name rather than the name given by European colonizers (e.g., Diné instead of Navajo).

Another way to demonstrate the heterogeneous nature of Indigenous peoples is to use plural nouns when discussing multiple groups. For example, because there is no single Indigenous (or Native American, First Nations, etc.) language or culture, phrases such as “Native American culture” are inaccurate. The use of “peoples” can also emphasize that Indigenous people are not homogeneous. The University of British Columbia’s guide Indigenous Peoples: Language Guidelines explains, “In some contexts, using ‘Indigenous people’ may seem homogenizing, or seem to refer simply to a collection of individuals. In contrast, ‘Indigenous peoples’ (plural) indicates a broad group that includes a number of separate Indigenous populations.”

Recommendation:

Be aware of the wide variety of Indigenous peoples around the world and different preferences regarding terminology. Ask the individual or group you’re communicating about for the most appropriate and accurate terminology to use, and consult guides specific to a particular Indigenous community (see “Resources on inclusive language for race, ethnicity, and nationality”). Be as specific as possible with identity terms (see “When and how to mention race and ethnicity”).

When you need to emphasize that a reference is to multiple Indigenous groups, use the plural “peoples.” When you are referring more generally to Indigenous people or to multiple individuals (rather than multiple Indigenous communities), “people” is acceptable. Use other plural nouns as appropriate (such as “languages”) to indicate that there is no single Indigenous culture.

Examples:

Use:

“Instead, Native American nations should have the opportunity to address environmental issues using their traditional ecological knowledge” (Hum. Biol. 2020, DOI: 10.13110/humanbiology.92.1.01).

Avoid:

Indigenous people (The context of the paper is Native American nations in the US, so “Indigenous” alone would be too broad.)

Use:

"Each of the San groups speaks its own language and has distinct customs, traditions and histories" (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, The Indigenous World 2021).

Avoid:

The San groups have a distinct history.

Use:

Ten Indigenous people registered for the course.

Avoid:

peoples (In this context, the regular plural “people” is used because the context is individuals, not distinct communities.)

 

Use:

“Since this paper is written in the context of the United States of America, we here focus particularly on the Indigenous peoples of the U.S.” (Matthew S. Tiscareno et al., 2020).

Avoid:

people (In this context, the multiple groups of Indigenous people in the US are emphasized, so the plural "peoples" is used.)

 


Use language that respects Indigenous people’s autonomy

Background:

One way to make language more inclusive of Indigenous peoples is to use words that recognize and respect their autonomy. For example, using a place-name’s possessive form or words like “our” or “of” with the names of Indigenous communities implies possession. Because colonizers often disregarded Indigenous people’s rights, implying subjugation in language can be harmful. It is more neutral and respectful to state the location after the identity, such as “Inuit in Quebec” (rather than “Quebec’s Inuit”).

A related issue is respecting the primary identity of a person or group. Terms like “Indigenous Canadians” emphasize the country-level nationality instead of the connection to the specific Indigenous community—which may also be a nation within a nation. “Throughout the history of Canada, the government and society in general has oppressed Indigenous people and so many do not identify as being Canadian,” the Journalists for Human Rights’ Style Guide for Reporting on Indigenous People says. In addition, abbreviations for identity terms, such as “ATSI” for “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander” and “FNMI” for “First Nations, Métis, and Inuit,” can be reductive, signal a lack of respect, and be harder to understand than spelled-out terms.

Another way to recognize Indigenous people’s right to self-determination is capitalization. In Elements of Indigenous Style, Gregory Younging explains, “Indigenous style uses capitals where conventional style does not. It is a deliberate decision that redresses mainstream society’s history of regarding Indigenous Peoples as having no legitimate national identities; governmental, social, spiritual, or religious institutions; or collective rights.” The specific words that Indigenous populations capitalize differ, but common ones include “Elder,” “Traditional Knowledge Holders,” and “Traditional Custodians.” Style guides vary on whether they capitalize “people” or “peoples.”

Language that reflects Indigenous people’s rights shows respect and is more accurate. For example, in the US, the word “nation” emphasizes sovereignty and is thus generally preferred to “tribe” (although “tribe” is used in some official names). In Canada, First Nations generally prefer “nation” or “people” to “tribe,” but the word “nation” is not appropriate for all First Nations, according to the University of British Columbia’s guide Indigenous Peoples: Language Guidelines. Similarly, “nation” isn’t appropriate for Inuit because they “do not subscribe to the concept of nationhood,” the Style Guide for Reporting on Indigenous People says. Another word that can downplay Indigenous people’s rights in Canada is “stakeholder”; “rights holder” more appropriately recognizes the constitutional rights of Indigenous people in Canada, according to Indigenous Corporate Training.

In addition, the use of present tense when referring to the original inhabitants of a land emphasizes that Indigenous people continue to exist. The National Museum of the American Indian says, “Only using the past tense reinforces the myth of the ‘Vanishing Indian’ and negates the experiences and the dynamic cultures of Native peoples today.”

Recommendation:

Do not use a possessive of a place-name with the name of an Indigenous person or group. For example, instead of “New Zealand’s Maori communities,” say “Maori communities in New Zealand.” Use the identity term that people want to use; this may mean not including the country-level nationality, such as using “Indigenous people in Ecuador” rather than “Indigenous Ecuadorans” (see also “When and how to mention nationality and locations”). Avoid the abbreviations “ASTI,” “FNMI,” and others for diverse Indigenous groups (see also “BIPOC, BAME, POC”).

In addition to capitalizing “Indigenous” and “Native,” capitalize other words that are traditionally capitalized among the Indigenous populations you are communicating about (see also “Capitalization and spelling of races, ethnicities, and nationalities”). Refer to style guides about the Indigenous population in question for more guidance (see “Resources on inclusive language for race, ethnicity, and nationality”). Also, use terms that recognize the rights and autonomy of Indigenous communities, such as using “nation” instead of “tribe” for groups in the US unless the formal name of a group includes “Tribe.” Use present tense when possible when discussing Indigenous peoples. See also “Recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples.”

Examples:

Use:

“Indigenous students at the University of Michigan are demanding greater representation and expanded support on campus” (Michigan Daily, Oct. 28, 2020).

Avoid:

the University of Michigan’s Indigenous students

Use:

“ ‘To me, [Indigenizing STEM] means bringing in land-based education, bringing in the culture, bringing in the language, bringing in the Elders and the Knowledge Keepers,’ Pratt says” (C&EN, Oct. 9, 2021).

Avoid:

the elders and the knowledge keepers

Use:

“Many Ainu hide their ethnicity to their colleagues, children, and even partners” (J. Race, Ethnicity, Polit. 2021, DOI: 10.1017/rep.2021.16).

Avoid:

hid

 


Avoid language that perpetuates racial or ethnic stereotypes or is rooted in violence against these groups

Background:

Some words used in everyday conversation can perpetuate stereotypes about certain racial and ethnic groups. For example, “Indian giver” implies Native Americans are untrustworthy. “Circle the wagons” refers to European colonizers preparing to defend against what they saw as dangerous enemies; the phrase contributes to the view of Indigenous people as the dangerous “other” and makes light of a violent past. Another common term, “gyp,” associates Romani people with thievery. A similar problem to these pejorative terms is multiple words and phrases that have been appropriated from cultures that are marginalized in Western society. See “Cultural appropriation in language” for more information.

In addition, some words and phrases are rooted in racism; their continued use may trivialize it. For example, “sold down the river”—a phrase commonly used to mean “being betrayed”—originally referred to selling and transporting enslaved people further south. Some phrases—such as “slave-making ants” and “slaving away” at a task—have more overt connections to racism. Similarly, language can be linked to trauma for people who are marginalized because of their race or ethnicity. For example, the American Psychological Association’s Inclusive Language Guidelines state that “pipeline” is “a term that is considered offensive and triggering to Indigenous communities as a result of oil companies transporting crude oil through the sacred lands of American Indians or Native Alaskans living in the United States, contaminating their water supply.” Another example is the word “master,” which is often associated with slavery and has definitions based on male dominance (“a male teacher” and “the male head of a household” in Merriam-Webster). To be more inclusive, many people and organizations have moved away from the use of “master” when possible, including in real estate, sommelier titles, and academic titles.

Although not everyone knows the etymology of words or phrases like “tipping point” or “grandfather clause,” the words may still cause harm if the people the terms originally disparaged know their origins. Moreover, people read and hear words not in isolation but over a lifetime. Unspinning the Spin, a guide from Women’s Media Center, explains, “Those who agree that the master of a certain house is a man might believe that mastering a skill is fair language. But consider, for example, the cumulative effect on the language when such a masculine and slavery-related word as master is encountered in so many everyday ways: master bedroom, master builder, master class, masterful, master hand, master key, master list, mastermind, masterpiece, master plan, master stroke, master switch, master tape, master teacher, masterwork, mastery, overmaster, past master, postmaster, prizemaster, self-mastery.”

Recommendation:

Do not use language that perpetuates stereotypes about racial or ethnic groups, and avoid language that clearly refers to past violence toward racial and ethnic groups. For everyday words with more obscure roots in racism, a few general principles apply. First, if people who are marginalized because of their race or ethnicity ask you to not use certain language because the words make them feel unwelcome or discriminated against, respect that request. A lifetime of microaggressions and overt racism means that people experience language differently—what may be hurtful to one group might seem innocuous to another. Second, consider the context of your communication—who is your audience, and what are your goals? Could those words fail to convey information clearly because their violent origins distract people? If you wish to reach the widest audience possible, avoid words with racist origins, even though the origins may not be widely known. Third, determine whether there is a clearer or more creative way to communicate your meaning. Often, replacing a word that has problematic origins can improve the clarity and impact of a message because it avoids overused idioms and clichés. See also “Cultural appropriation in language,” “Avoid associating ‘black’ or darkness with bad, and ‘white’ or lightness with good,” “Avoid using disability-related terms to describe something negative,” and “Avoid metaphorical uses of disability-related terms.”

Examples:

Use:

Presenting was easy for her.

Avoid:

a cakewalk

Use:

“ILC accounts for 10–15% of all breast cancers and is characterized by small, round tumor cells growing in stroma in a discohesive single-file pattern” (Sci. Rep. 2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-25357-0).

Avoid:

Indian-file pattern

Use:

“Restrictions on water use in the Klamath Basin at the California−Oregon border have contenders on both sides ready to fight” (J. Agric. Food Chem. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.1c03540).

Avoid:

on the warpath

 


Cultural appropriation in language

Background:

The English language borrows words from other cultures constantly, and this practice can enrich the language when it respects the original intent and context of the word and when the borrowing culture respects the originating one. This practice becomes cultural appropriation when people in a socially dominant group use borrowed words in a way that doesn’t respect the culture they're taken from. Sometimes culturally appropriated words are terms of religious reverence in other cultures, such as “guru,” or they corrupt or mock important traditions or beliefs when used casually in English, such as “powwow,” “spirit animal,” and phrases like “low on the totem pole.” Other terms are names of groups of people, such as “Sherpa,” an ethnic group native to Nepal. The word “Sherpa” came into English to describe a stereotype associated with that group (being a guide in a difficult situation).

When people take words from a different culture—especially one that the borrowing culture has historically marginalized or exploited—and use those words out of context, euphemistically, or jokingly, they communicate less clearly and make an important tradition seem less significant, such as using “kabuki” in place of “political theater.” Cultural appropriation in language can also commodify or belittle a culture, especially when borrowed words are used to market a product or make money (e.g., using “Sherpa” figuratively in a job post to describe someone’s being a guide).

Recommendation:

When deciding whether to use words borrowed from another language, consider whether the word holds cultural significance in its original language or derives from an important tradition or belief. If it does, take special care not to use it disrespectfully. Avoid using borrowed words figuratively or in a joking sense.

Examples:

Use:

The ideal candidate for this job would be an expert in project management.

Avoid:

a project management ninja

Use:

The new administration has been accused of embracing supply-side economics.

Avoid:

voodoo economics


Avoid associating “black” or darkness with bad, and “white” or lightness with good

Background:

Many words in English use “black” or darkness to signify something bad, whereas words with “white” or lightness describe something good. For example, “blacklist,” “black day,” “black sheep,” and “black magic” refer to negative things, whereas “whitelist,” “white lie,” and “white knight” refer to good things. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. noted in a speech, “Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget's Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least 60 of them are offensive. . . . And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable.” Similarly, metaphors often associate darkness with bad things—such as a “dark mood” and “dark clouds on the horizon.”

This association of “black” or darkness with bad things and “white” or lightness with good things can perpetuate anti-Black racism and stereotypes. “Experts believe that this declaration of whiteness as supreme, ‘clean’ and preferable isn't just poetic license; it affects the ways in which we interact with other people and can contribute to racial discrimination,” J. R. Thorpe says in a 2017 article in Bustle. Later, Thorpe says, “If the language we're using naturally, and regularly, associates blackness with inferiority and negativity, it's no wonder that Black lives don't seem to matter to some people nearly as much as white ones do.”

A similar problem is using “black and white” to describe two diametrically opposed sides. “Using ‘black and white’ lays a foundation, at a subliminal level, for thinking of black and white as opposites and mutually exclusive,” Unspinning the Spin, a guide from the Women’s Media Center, says.

As with avoiding ableist terms, avoiding the “black is bad” association can encourage people to use language that is more understandable on first mention and more accurate (see “Avoid using disability-related terms to describe something negative”). For example, “safe list” is more straightforward than “whitelist.” 

Recommendation:

Avoid words or phrases that use “black” or darkness to convey bad things, and “white” or lightness to convey good things. Similarly, avoid using “black and white” as an adjective to describe a dichotomous situation. When thinking of replacements for problematic terms, aim for direct, straightforward language.

Examples:

Use:

“Furthermore, most potential predatory journals request that articles be submitted via email rather than a submission system (e.g., Editorial Manager, Scholar One), as presumed legitimate journals do” (BMC Med. 2017, DOI: 10.1186/s12916-017-0785-9).

Avoid:

most blacklist journals . . . as presumed whitelist journals

Use:

“A common method for handling such unwanted prescription drugs, which are in demand on the underground market, is to bind them to activated carbon” (C&EN, Nov. 21, 2021).

Avoid:

black market

Use:

“By exchanging short text messages with a chatbot, users can address stress, relationship problems, and other concerns by learning about CBT concepts such as overgeneralization and all-or-nothing thinking" (Monitor on Psychology, Nov. 1, 2021).

Avoid:

black-and-white thinking

Use:

“In a year-end report, CEO Heinz-Jürgen Bertram says bad actors attempted to extort the company” (C&EN, May 27, 2021).

Avoid:

blackmail

Use:

The acrimonious debate among the groups created a tense atmosphere at the meeting.

Avoid:

cast a dark cloud over the meeting

Use:

“These are painful times for those hoping to see an international consensus and substantive action on global warming” (Conversation, Feb. 16, 2012).

Avoid:

dark times


Use language that accurately reflects events harming people of color

Background:

Poor word choice can reinforce inaccuracies about events involving people of color. Critically examining traditional ways of describing events—especially those that harmed marginalized groups—provides an opportunity for creating more validating and more respectful messages. For example, the words “discovered,” “New World,” and “settlers” ignore the Indigenous peoples of a land and use benign terms to describe what was to Indigenous people a violent, traumatic uprooting. A University of New South Wales guide recommends “invasion,” “colonization,” or “occupation” over “settlement”: “Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a ‘settlement’ attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia.” Similarly, portraying the US as a “land of immigrants” or saying “we are all immigrants” erases the history of Indigenous peoples as well as enslaved people forcibly brought to the US.

Another part of US history for which euphemisms obscure the harm done to people of color is the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Japanese American Citizens League recommends using “incarceration” instead of “internment” for those held in War Relocation Authority camps and using “American concentration camp” instead of “relocation center.” Euphemisms are also used to describe the detainment of immigrants by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Alex Kapitan explains in a 2019 post on Radical Copyeditor that more accurate words than “detention center” include “immigrant prison,” “immigrant jail,” and “jails and prison-like facilities.”

Word choice regarding slavery in the US is also changing to more accurately reflect history. For example, the Underground Railroad Education Center says, “Traditionally, we have referred to the sites where enslaved people labored as ‘plantations.’ This word, benign and neutral, ignores the reality that these sites were in truth enforced labor camps. Both before and after the Civil War, many southerners used the word to conjure up the institution of slavery as a benign, even beneficial institution.” See also “Enslaved people, slaves.”

The words that are used to describe history and current events change as our understanding of the events and people involved changes. Inclusive language for events that harm or harmed people of color is likely to change over time. In addition, simply replacing one word for another without regard for context or meaning does not make the writing more inclusive. For example, some enslaved people sought freedom through other acts of resistance than escaping, so replacing “fugitive” with “freedom seeker” may not always be appropriate, according to Rebecca Onion in a 2022 Slate article. And appropriate words for slavery that occurred in the US may not be appropriate for slavery that occurred in other parts of the world, Onion says.

Recommendation:

Use accurate, straightforward language instead of euphemisms for events that harm or harmed people of color. Avoid words, such as “discovered” in reference to places, that ignore the history of Indigenous people. Continue to exam word choice for events as our understanding of those events changes.

Example:

Use:

“Columbus resembled a non-British symbol of patriotism in the so-called ‘New World’ ” (Medium, Oct. 9, 2020).

Avoid:

in the New World


Enslaved people, slaves

Background:

Historians have debated whether “slave” or “enslaved person” is more appropriate. Katy Waldman explains in a 2015 Slate article, “Advocates for enslaved person claim that slave imagines slavery as an internal or even metaphysical condition, not an imposed and arbitrary one. Whereas enslaved person makes clear that the status is involuntary.” On the other hand, using the word “slave” “is an opportunity to reinforce slavery’s inhumanity, to hammer home the brutishness of the perpetrators’ worldview by forcing readers to inhabit it,” Waldman says.

The Underground Railroad Education Center, National Park Service, and a group of senior slavery scholars of color recommend “enslaved person” over “slave” because the former emphasizes personhood, and it establishes being enslaved as a status rather than an identity. Similar goals are behind shifts from “fugitive” or “runaway” to “freedom seeker,” “self-liberated person,” or “self-emancipated person.”

Historians are also moving away from the traditional terms “slaveholder,” “owner,” and “master,” instead favoring “enslaver.” The National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program says, “An enslaver exerted power over those they kept in bondage. They referred to themself as a master or owner—hierarchical language which reinforced a sense of natural authority. Today, the terms ‘master’ or ‘owner’ can continue to suggest a naturalness to the system while also distancing us from the fact that enslavers actively enslaved other human beings who were entitled to the same natural rights as themselves.”

Recommendation:

Use “enslaved person” instead of “slave,” and “enslaver” instead of “slaveholder,” “master,” or “owner.” For other terms related to slavery, consider what term would be most appropriate and accurate. See also “Use language that accurately reflects events harming people of color.”


Tribe, tribal

Background:

The word “tribe” comes from the Latin word for a Roman administrative unit, but when Europeans colonized other nations, colonists used the term to describe non-European groups as inferior and in opposition to so-called civilized people. “Tribe” is thus problematic as a designation for incredibly varied communities throughout the world, including in Africa (see especially “The Trouble with Tribe,” by Chris Lowe). When the related words “tribal” and “tribalism” are used to mean polarization and a bitter refusal to think critically, they play on the colonial attitude of superiority toward people who aren’t European.

While “tribe” has been used for many groups over time, including the descendants of Jacob in the Bible, the term “tribe” has a particular meaning for Indigenous communities in the US and is tied into their fight for rights. Multiple examples from history and the present day illustrate the link between Indigenous people’s struggle for self-determination and the word “tribe” (see Renee Hutchens’s Change.org petition for more). One, US colonizers named Indigenous people in the US “tribes” partly as a way to avoid recognizing their sovereignty. Today, many Indigenous people in the US prefer “nation” because that more clearly indicates their right to self-determination (see also “Use language that respects Indigenous people’s autonomy”). Two, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the federal government took Indigenous children from their families and from their nations and forced them into boarding schools, where officials tried to erase all aspects of Indigenous identity. Three, during the “termination period” of the mid-1900s, the US government terminated its recognition of over 100 tribal nations. Four, only federally recognized “tribes” have a nation-to-nation political relationship with the US and receive certain rights, and the process of becoming federally recognized can be arduous. The National Congress of American Indians says, “The current federal acknowledgement process is badly broken, taking over 30 years to consider some applications.”

So for many Indigenous people in the US, the offhand use of “tribe” for a group of like-minded people fails to recognize the historical and continued discrimination against Indigenous people, Indigenous people’s struggle to be recognized as sovereign, and the special political status of federally recognized tribes. Faith E. Briggs, in a 2018 article on Medium, says, “So what does it do when we casually refer to our friends as our tribe? In my opinion, it undercuts the reality of what it means to be a tribal member. Tribe has a context of blood, a relationship with a history of unequal power dynamics, of legal discrimination and legal disenfranchisement.” Briggs encourages people to “stop saying we’ve found our ‘tribe’ because tribal people have fought long and hard and still face discrimination because of their tribal affiliation.”

Recommendation:

Avoid using “tribe,” “tribal,” or “tribalism” in a casual way to refer to people who don’t identify as Indigenous. For generally using “nation” instead of “tribe” for Indigenous people in North America, see “Use language that respects Indigenous people’s autonomy.” Also avoid using “tribe” as an anthropological catchall term for communities that are culturally distinct from Western society. See also “Cultural appropriation in language.”

Examples:

Use:

“And when in-group loyalties are emphasized, there is always a risk that an out-group is being demarcated” (Duke Forum for Law and Social Change 2010, 2, 125).

Avoid:

tribalism is emphasized

Use:

“Find your niche in the #chemistry business landscape!” (@AmerChemSociety, Twitter, Aug. 26, 2020)

Avoid:

your tribe


When and how to mention nationality and locations

Background:

Someone’s nationality—their membership of a nation—does not always match their current location. Immigrants and refugees, visitors, and students and workers on visas, among others, may have a nationality different from the country where they live or work. And the country of one’s birth does not define nationality, because people can become citizens of another country. Furthermore, migrants’ nationality may not always match the country they’re leaving. For example, not all people crossing the US-Mexico border are from Mexico, so describing all such people as “Mexican immigrants” would be inaccurate. 

Beyond the legal and technical requirements of citizenship and nationality, people may have a separate national identity—a sense of belonging to a nation. For example, an immigrant to the US from China may identify as Chinese, Chinese American, American, or another nationality. Also, because a country’s boundaries may be imperfect or arbitrary, national identity may not be attached to a recognized nation. For example, a person might identify as Kurdish, reside in Iraq, and hold Syrian citizenship or be considered stateless. And a person might have Israeli citizenship but identify as Palestinian.

Mentioning nationality when it is not relevant could imply that you’re making a statement about someone’s nationality—for instance, that you’re attributing someone’s behavior or personality to their nationality. Nationality might be relevant, however, if it provides context for what a person or group is legally able to do.

Similarly, unnecessary or imbalanced mentions of geographic location can reveal biases. Giving the location of only non-US universities, for example, implies that the US universities are more well known and thus don’t need to be identified by place. In addition, giving different levels of specificity for place-names in the same context can seem insensitive. For example, listing “Africa” along with several countries implies that Africa is a country instead of a continent.

Recommendation:

Mention someone’s nationality only if that information is relevant and accurate. Do not conflate citizenship with national identity. Respect how people want to be identified (e.g., they may identify more with their national identity than their citizenship). Mention geographic location of a person, group, or organization only when that information provides useful context. When mentioning several place-names together, generally give the same level of specificity.

Examples:

Use:

The professor emigrated from Iran to the US 10 years ago after securing a professorship. 

Avoid:

The Iranian immigrant has lived in the US for 10 years since securing her professorship.

Use:

Researchers in China have broken the record for solar panel efficiency. (If location is necessary; if not, just “Researchers”)

Avoid:

Chinese researchers (This language implies that all the researchers are Chinese. Even though all work in China, they may not all be Chinese.)

Use:

The company established sites in Canada, Sweden, and Chile.

Avoid:

sites in Canada, Sweden, and Latin America


When and how to mention immigration status

Background:

Mentioning that someone is an immigrant, refugee, or other migrant when that information is not relevant to the rest of the project can seem to connect someone’s migratory status to their actions or can imply that you see them first as a migrant, not a person with many other characteristics. In addition, revealing that someone is an immigrant or refugee may create an unsafe situation for them.  

Legal demands of immigrants in all countries are constantly changing, so depending on when and where a person migrated, an individual’s legal immigration status can be nuanced. Describing an unauthorized or undocumented immigrant as “illegal” glosses over these legal nuances. It is also disrespectful because it refers to an entire person instead of an action as illegal. 

Some phrases, such as “anchor baby” and “chain migration,” assume that people are intentionally trying to take unfair advantage of immigration systems. These phrases, along with “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien,” were introduced and are used by political groups to serve their agendas and are often a coded way of describing immigrants of color. In addition, “alien” is problematic because it is dehumanizing. Negative labels such as these can foster prejudice.

Recommendation:

Mention that someone is a migrant or their immigration status only if it is relevant, the fact has been confirmed, and the person approves publication of the fact. Do not use the term “illegal immigrants,” “illegal aliens,” “aliens,” or “illegals.” Instead, use terms that are legally accurate and respectful, like “unauthorized immigrants,” “undocumented immigrants” (if accurate), or “noncitizen.” In Europe, a common alternative to “illegal immigration” is “irregular immigration.” Do not use terms like “anchor baby” and “chain migration.” Instead, use objective and legally accurate phrases. For example, instead of “anchor baby,” use “citizen child of undocumented immigrants” (if accurate), and instead of “chain migration,” use “family-based immigration.” In all cases, it may be more accurate and clearer to describe people’s actions rather than use a label for their status.

Examples:

Use:

 “Undocumented immigrants’ ineligibility for public benefits means they cannot access the diagnostically based Medicare entitlement for hemodialysis” (JAMA Intern. Med. 2017, DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.8865).

Avoid:

Illegal immigrants’ ineligibility

Use:

The community demographics shifted dramatically in the 2010s because residents applied for family-based immigrant visas.

Avoid:

because of chain migration

Use:

She immigrated in 1999 and overstayed her 2-year student visa.

Avoid:

She became an undocumented immigrant in 2001.


Resources on inclusive language for race, ethnicity, and nationality