Skip to main content
Logo image

Sound Writing

Subsection 6.2.4 Language Toward Racial and Ethnic Inclusivity

Writing about race and ethnicity is complex because both are linked to past and present histories of horrific oppression and intergroup conflict with correspondingly deep individual and group trauma. Both ethnicity and race can make people targets of stereotyping, prejudice, and violence, and at the same time provide a sense of belonging or pride for people. Like most other identities, the categories of race and ethnicity have differed between places and across time. For example, in the United States, court cases such as Dow v. United States (1915)—which determined that Syrian people were not “white”—have been part of sculpting the racial categories we are familiar with today. Racial and ethnic categories continue to drastically impact all of our lives, and so, while complicated, it is important to be aware of the histories behind the words we use and the ways we write about race and ethnicity in order to not perpetuate racist ideologies. See the list of terms for relevant definitions as you read this section.

Student Perspective 6.2.10. Decolonizing our Language.

Using the term “slaves” is using terminology that’s very dehumanizing. In my papers and within my language I do my best to say “enslaved peoples” or “the transatlantic enslavement trade.” It’s not that these people were slaves, they were enslaved. Recognizing this history in our writing is one way we can decolonize our language.
―Member of the Black Student Union
University of Puget Sound
May 2019
Racial prejudice and racism, though related, are distinctly different. Racial prejudice is discrimination against someone because of their race. Racism is a sociocultural phenomenon that takes into account histories of racial inequality and describes a system that benefits people in a dominant racial group (whether or not they want to benefit) through the oppression of other racial groups. Because racism is a result of dependent on past and present systemic racial inequality, “reverse racism” does not exist. For example, in the United States there has never been a set of laws and political and economic institutions that enforce the dominance of people of color over White people as there have been in support of White supremacy. Therefore, while a person of color may hold racial prejudice towards a White person, there is no structural support for their prejudice that enables them to exert “reverse racism.”
Racism has manifested in many different ways. Some forms are overt, such as “Whites Only” signs during the Jim Crow era; other racist histories are embedded in language in less obvious ways. For example, the term “Caucasian” as a synonym for White has its origins in pseudo–scientific theories about the racial divisions. Although white-skinned people might feel uncomfortable with a racial descriptor such as White, using that term is one way to use equivalent terms; there is ethnocentric bias in assuming whiteness as a standard and using terms like Black, Asian, and Latino to designate people as different from that standard. Racism can also appear under the guise of being approving. For example, calling women of color “exotic” is both dehumanizing and othering, which has been used to justify acts of sexual violence against women of color in the U.S. (among other places).

Student Perspective 6.2.11. Orientalism in Language.

“Oriental” is a word that people shouldn’t use, unless they are directly quoting from somebody else that is using it in scholarly writing and is pointing out how that is an outdated, problematic term, but otherwise if they are making their own opinion, they should not write “this oriental” or “the orient.”
―Member of the Asian and Pacific Islander Collective
University of Puget Sound
May 2018
It is helpful to be aware of conventions within particular disciplines. Remember that these conventions may reflect racism that exists in the academy, and that scholars within and across different academic disciplines may not agree on definitions and conventions related to race and ethnicity. When in doubt, do some research and do not be afraid to engage in conversations about appropriate usage. When referring to a particular person or group, use the term that they prefer (though when directly asking people, be mindful of the burden you may be placing on them to educate you). You may not get unanimous feedback on what the best terminology is; lots of terminology is in flux, and what is respectful or correct is contested. For example, there remains no consensus about the proper capitalization of “Black,” especially in relation to “White.” Additionally, the distinction between “Native American” and “American Indian” is also contested. You can ask your professors for their preferences and, as always, research the implications of each usage; it is always best to be intentional and open-minded.

Student Perspective 6.2.12. Writing with Specificity.

People really need to be more specific about what they’re talking about when they use the words “Asian” and “Pacific Islander.” If people are doing research that deals with empirical data and they use the word “Asian” when they’re searching, that data’s largely going to include Chinese, Japanese and maybe Korean Americans. And even within that there are problems with how we classify who is Chinese, [which can include Mandarin, Mainland, and Cantonese people] here’s just a lot of complexity in writing about our community that can’t really be distilled down into the labels.
―Member of the Asian and Pacific Islander Collective
University of Puget Sound
May 2018
Racism is embedded in histories of the academy. Our understanding of many fields of knowledge is limited by the perspectives of the people who were publishing in those fields. It is only recently that the academy has begun to be shaped by the voices of people who look like our world more broadly. Even as you read published, peer-reviewed, scholarly sources, read with a critical eye, considering how the author’s identity and experiences might shape the lens they use to look at the world. Understanding what perspective the author may have been coming from can give you a lot of context about why they have the ideas they do, which methodologies they use, and how they define their terms. Additionally, it gives you an opportunity to think about what voices you are bringing into your paper: Are you representing a diversity of perspectives? Are you including the voices of people from the communities about which you’re writing?
List 6.2.13. Strategies for Writing with Racial and Ethnic Inclusivity in Mind
  • Beware of oversimplifying Latino/a/x identity.
    Latino/a (in other stylings, Latin@, Latinx, which have slightly different meanings) refers to any person of Latin American descent living in America. Mexican Americans may also identify as Chicano/a/x (or Xicano/a/x). The terms Chicano/a come from the 1960’s Mexican American Civil Rights Movement and represent a more political stance on identity than Latino/a (as they are examples of words that were reappropriated by the people who they originally referred to in a derogatory way). Hispanic describes any person of Spanish-speaking heritage. While some Latinos find the term “Hispanic” offensive because it reinforces the history of Spanish colonialism, others (particularly Latinos in the American Southwest) embrace and use the identifier. Furthermore, “Latino/a/x” also references/privileges European descent in its etymology, and “Chicano/a/x”, which nods to a Mesoamerican indigenous nation, is seen by some to obscure the complicated nature of modern Mexican and Mexican American identity (which has come to include Afro-Mexicans, Mexicans of Chinese descent, and, increasingly, Central Americans). The meanings of these terms are debated and, as a result, not fixed. It is always best to follow how people identify themselves.
  • As you write with accuracy and specificity, be aware of the difference in scope between the terms Black and African American.
    “Black” is typically a racial term describing people with African ancestry living anywhere in the world. “African American” generally refers to Black descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. who likewise live in the U.S.
  • Stay informed about respectful language use, which changes over time.
    For instance, in the contemporary United States, using the word “Black” as an adjective (as with “Black people”) is widely accepted as inoffensive (though using it as a noun, as in “Blacks,” is often offensive). In contrast, the term “colored” was once widely used, but it is now inappropriate. For more on the historical baggage that words carry see Historical Baggage.
  • Think critically about the assumptions and invisibilities reflected in the choices you make when writing about race and ethnicity.
    People often identify with more than one group or category, and so writers may use terms like multi-racial or multi-ethnic. One problem with these terms is that they render invisible specific racial and cultural identities, such as being Black and Asian; White and Puerto Rican; or Native American, Black, and Latina.
  • When using the term “people of color” make sure you are truly talking about all individuals who are not considered White.
    For example, if you are actually referring just to Native American people, say so.
  • Consider carefully the term “minority.”.
    Often, “minoritized” or “marginalized” is a more accurate descriptor because—in many cases—the so-called minority is not, in fact, quantitatively in the minority, even though the people being described may be marginalized or treated as inferior.

Student Perspective 6.2.14. Respecting People’s Chosen Terms.

If you’re writing about a specific person or group of people, try to figure out what they call themselves. While some people identify as Latino, others identify as Afro-Latino, Latinx, Chicano, Hispanic, Guatemalan, Mexican, Mexican American. . .the list goes on. Additionally, many indigenous people of South America do not identify with the term Latino even though from a U.S. lens we may consider them so.
―Member of Latinx Unidos
University of Puget Sound
May 2018
List 6.2.15. Terms
is a socially constructed system of categories and affiliations based primarily on physical characteristics such as variations in hair, eyes, or skin color. Across most parts of the modern world, the construction of race is linked to inequalities in power and histories of oppression including discrimination and slavery.
generally refers to identities or affiliations based on cultural factors such as nationality, regional heritage, religion, and/or language.
was formerly known as the official process of a colonial government withdrawing its control over a nation(s) thereby leaving it independent, but is now also recognized as the long-term process of dismantling colonial dominance bureaucratically, culturally, linguistically, and psychologically, including the deconstruction of colonial ideologies and systems of supremacy, and the empowerment and revitalization of Indigenous people, knowledge, languages, and cultures.
Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking courses in African American Studies, Asian Studies, Hispanic Studies, Latin American Studies, Latina/o Studies, French and Francophone Studies, and similar disciplines would be a good way to continue learning, as would getting involved in programs provided by your school’s diversity center. Your university also likely has an Office of Diversity that engages with these issues within the institution.