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Race and ethnicity

Published onOct 20, 2022
Race and ethnicity

It is important to talk about matters related to race and ethnicity using terms that the community prefers and uses to self-identify rather than defaulting to what is generally accepted by dominant power holders and structures. This may require questioning and reimagining terms that have been historically used in favor of those identified by and for specific communities. Despite common belief, a person’s race, ethnicity, or nationality cannot be determined simply by looking at them.


a social construct that describes people with shared physical characteristics; not based on biology; not synonymous with skin color, ethnicity, or nationality


the social identity and mutual sense of belonging that defines a group of people through common historical or family origins, beliefs, and standards of behavior (i.e., culture)


refers to the country that a person belongs to, either by birth or naturalization

Do not mention race or ethnicity if it is not relevant. If race is mentioned, consider whether mentioning that someone is white is relevant; do not treat it as the default.

What assumptions about default characteristics are made about people within the story? Avoid portraying people as stereotypes. Consider whether the context contributes to a stereotype. For example, see the study about Italian news coverage in the Crime section of these guidelines. Example: A Black man who is a good athlete ; a Japanese American boy who is good at math.

Avoid generalizations and vague terms. Do not use continents as descriptors as this lumps large and often diverse groups of people together. Example: “Chinese American” instead of “Asian American” ; “Nigerian” instead of “African” ; “from the United States” instead of “American.” See also: Geopolitics.

Do not use umbrella terms, such as “B lack, Asian, and minority ethnic” (BAME) or “people of color”, when a more precise word or phrase is appropriate. For example, do not use BAME if the group referenced is only Black Britons. Note: the Roma, Gypsy, and Irish Traveller peoples are considered minority ethnic populations in the UK, and using BAME or BME as a synonym for people of color is inaccurate.

Are terms capitalized where they should be? Many style guides now recommend capitalizing “black”, although there is still some disagreement about whether “white” should be capitalized. Example: “Black woman”, “White man” (National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists). Note that in some countries like South Africa it is not common to capitalize these words.

Consider the context. For example, while “black” is a term that some in the US have embraced, not all people with African ancestry identify this way. In Nigeria people are more likely to identify as part of a particular ethnic group, such as Yoruba or Igbo. Also, a person with Haitian ancestry who was born in the United States may identify as Haitian rather than Black or Haitian American.

Has the community self-identified using this term? Note that there can be disagreement within communities about what terms are preferred. When writing about someone, it is best to ask how they self-identify or what their preferred terms are. For example, only 3% of US adults who identify as Hispanic or Latino prefer the term “Latinx” (Noe-Bustamante). Similarly, the Native Governance Center “does not recommend that non-Native folks use the terms American Indian or Indian,” whereas other organizations recommend this language. Some Roma peoples prefer the term “Gypsy”, while others find it offensive.

Be respectful. Do not use pejorative or derogatory terms, and do not use dehumanizing or fetishizing language. In particular, do not use food words to describe the color of someone’s skin or appearance. Example: caramel, cocoa, chocolate. The same goes for comparing people to animals.

The following definitions may be useful but should not be considered comprehensive. See the Resources for more information.




In Australia: Legally, someone who is a descendant of an Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, sees himself or herself as an Aboriginal person and is recognized as Aboriginal by members of the community in which he or she lives or has lived (ALRC 2003); a broad term that groups nations and custodians of mainland Australia and most of the islands, including Tasmania, Fraser Island, Palm Island, Mornington Island, Groote Eylandt, Bathurst, and Melville Islands.

In Canada: An umbrella term that refers to First Nations, Métis, and the Inuit in Canada. “Indigenous” is somewhat preferred but specifics are better.

African American

People in the United States who share a lineage that can be traced directly or indirectly to Africa. Can be but is not always synonymous with Black. It’s best to ask.

Alaska Native

An umbrella term that includes Inupiat and Yupik, Alaskan Indians (Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian), and Aleut. They are culturally distinct and most prefer to be called “Alaska Native” instead of being grouped as American Indian (Diversity Style Guide).

American Indian; Native American

Both are generally acceptable and can be used interchangeably. “Native American” gained traction in the 1960s for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Over time, “Native American” has been expanded to include all Native people of the continental United States and some in Alaska. “Native American” is used only to describe groups of Native Americans— two or more individuals of different tribal affiliation. Identify people by their preferred tribal affiliation.

Asian Pacific Islander

Refers to both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It’s best to be specific about what communities are being referenced (Guide to Covering Asian Pacific America).

Biracial; multiracial

Combination of two (or more) races. It’s best to ask how someone identifies as not all biracial or multiracial people use these terms. Do not use “mixed” as an alternative.

Black diaspora

Black people of African descent who are scattered throughout the world; refers to Black people whose ancestors were removed from the African continent through slavery and colonization and dispersed worldwide.

First Nations

Aboriginal peoples of Canada who are ethnically neither Métis nor Inuit.

Gypsy; Traveller

Romani Gypsy and Irish Traveller are distinct ethnic groups under UK race relations legislation. Both terms should be capitalized when referring to the peoples. Do not use as a general term meaning “wanderer.”

Note: Some Roma people find the term “Gypsy” offensive. Whenever possible, ask what term is preferred (PIRC; Guardian).


A person who is of Polynesian descent. Do not use to refer to someone living in Hawaii.


Refers to persons of Spanish-speaking origin or ancestry


A person with ancestral ties to India. Use “Indian American” to refer to a U.S. permanent resident or citizen with ancestral ties to India. Do not confuse with “American Indian”. Do not use to refer to Indigenous peoples of the United States.


"While an official definition of ‘Indigenous’ is not agreed on, the United Nations has developed an understanding of the term based on self-identification, historical continuity to pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies, links to territories and resources, distinct social, economic and political systems and possession of distinct languages, cultures and beliefs. In the case of the United States, tribal membership or citizenship denotes Indigenous identity. These factors make the words Indigenous and Aboriginal identities, not adjectives, and NAJA urges outlets to capitalize these terms in order to avoid confusion between indigenous plants and animals and Indigenous human beings. Finally, avoid referring to Indigenous people as possessions of states or countries. Instead of Wyoming’s Indigenous people, say the Indigenous people of Wyoming " (Diversity Style Guide).


refers to anyone of Latin American origin or ancestry

r eserve; reservation

Land, either ancestral land or land Native nations were forcibly removed to. Note that these are not the same as a Native nation’s name (Native Governance Center)

Tribal affiliation

identify Indigenous people by their specific tribes, nations, or communities whenever possible. Ask what the preferred term is.


Use with caution. Better to use “nation” or specify the ethnic group unless “tribe” is the preferred term.Within the United States, many Native Americans prefer the term “nation” because their people have signed treaties with the United States that recognize them as nations. Some Native Americans prefer their national affiliation instead of using the generic term Native American, e.g., Navajo, Hopi, Cherokee.

Avoid referring to different ethnic groups as tribes. For example, Hutu and Tutsi are ethnic groups, not tribes.

Terms to avoid or use with caution:



black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME); black and minority ethnic (BME)

Name the specific groups instead. Previously used in the UK until 2021.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)

Being specific is preferred. “People of color” may be acceptable; do not use POC.


Being specific is preferred. “People of color” may be acceptable; do not use POC.

model minority

Do not use as this is a stereotype and is considered offensive.


Avoid using to describe people. Be specific whenever possible. Not synonymous with people of color.


Pejorative. Do not use.

Note: I n some African countries, “colored” denotes those of mixed racial ancestry and is acceptable.

skin-colored; nude

Avoid or be specific as to its meaning. Often exclusionary as it usually refers to white skin.


Outdated term for a person with one white parent and one black parent. Avoid as it is considered insensitive. Biracial or multiracial may be appropriate.


Should only be used as an adjective, not a noun.


Avoid. Be specific instead.


Pejorative; do not use to refer to people. May be acceptable in certain uses (e.g., oriental rugs).


main/secondary; primary/secondary; leading/alternative; source/replica.


b locklist/allowlist; exclude list/include list; avoid list/prefer list


Do not use to mean w hite.


Acceptable only if referring to the title of a specific American Indian event. Avoid if referring to a general gathering.

ethnic; exotic

Avoid. These terms can be seen as marginalizing and offensive as they are often used to denote things from countries outside North America and Western Europe. Name the specific country or culture the item being described comes from.


"A member of the Indigenous people who have traditionally inhabited Alaska and other Arctic regions, including eastern Siberia in Russia, Canada and Greenland.” Some consider the term pejorative, and it should be used with caution.


Be specific. Multiracial is also acceptable.


Derogatory. Do not use.




American Medical Association & Association of American Medical Colleges. (2021). Advancing health equity: Guide on language, narrative and concepts.

American Psychological Association. (2019, September). Racial and ethnic identity. APA Style.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2021, September 6). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Australian Government Style Manual.

Gabriel, D. (2016, May 12). Racial categorisation and terminology. Black British Academics.

Global Press Journal. (n.d.). Global press style guide.

Guardian News & Media Limited. (2021, April 30). Guardian and Observer style guide. The Guardian.

Kendi, I. (2019). How to Be an Antiracist [E-book]. Random House Publishing Group.

Miller, K., Alderman, D., Carnahan, L., Chen, L., Foti, J., Goldstein, B., Hogan, M., Marshall, J., Reczek, K., Rioux, N., Theofanos, M., & Wollman, D. (2021, April). Guidance for NIST staff on using inclusive language in documentary standards. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

MP Associates, Center for Assessment and Policy Development, & World Trust Educational Services. (2021, October). Racial equity tools glossary. Racial Equity Tools.

National Association of Black Journalists. (n.d.). NABJ style guide.

National Association of Hispanic Journalists. (2021, March). Cultural competence handbook.

Native Governance Center. (2021, October 2). How to talk about Native nations: A guide.

Nitt, V. A. P. B. (2020, November 30). Guide to Covering Asian Pacific America. Asian American Journalists Association. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from

Noe-Bustamante, L., Mora, L., & Lopez, M. H. (2020, August 11). About One-in-Four U.S. Hispanics Have Heard of Latinx, but Just 3% Use It. Pew Research Center.

Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), London Gypsies & Travellers, & Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange. (2022, January). Media that moves full report.

Race Disparity Unit. (2021, December). Writing about ethnicity. GOV.UK.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2015). Guidelines for the ethical publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and research from those communities. Aboriginal Studies Press.

The Diversity Style Guide. (2022).

The University of British Columbia. (2021). Indigenous peoples: Language guidelines (3.0).

Thibodeau, P. (2020, September 8). SAP sets alternatives to master/slave, blacklist/whitelist. Tech Target.

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