Culture3 min read

How to talk about race & ethnicity

🗣️ Words matter.

That’s why we’ve outlined some useful rules of thumb and terms to use across three broad dimensions of diversity to help make you feel more confident in conversation.

📌 Disclaimer: this guide is by no means comprehensive — far from it! For the sake of brevity, we’ve covered key terms for the dimensions of diversity that we’re most likely to shrink away from talking about.

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🧠 Things to keep in mind

Don’t assume you can even begin to understand others’ experiences or viewpoints. The reality is you can’t. Never act as though you understand their perspective based on your own personal experiences.

This will likely come across as naïve at best, patronising and offensive at worst.

People can only speak for themselves. Don’t expect people to be an expert on world events just because their cultural heritage is linked in some way.

And also don’t expect a person’s opinions or behaviours to represent their entire racial or ethnic group.

Don’t tell people they’re “acting white”. Being told you’re acting “too white” when you take on the social expectations of white society is problematic. It’s a particularly common experience for people of dual heritage who are often (wrongly) expected to choose a dominant identity.

This is a subtle way of shaming them for embracing a part of their identity. That’s not right – none of us are one-dimensional, and we should be free to define ourselves based on multiple identities, including ethnic identities.

Don’t assume people aren’t British just because they aren’t white. Obviously the UK is a diverse place. Being British is about your nationality and the place you call home, not about your race or ethnicity.

It’s usually better to be as specific as possible about someone’s identity. For example, describing someone as Vietnamese is almost certainly better than describing them as Asian or a person of colour. (Better yet, ask them how they identify themselves!)

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🌎 Race & ethnicity glossary

AAPI or APA: “Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders” or “Asian-Pacific Americans”. This label has widespread usage across educational and political contexts and was intended to cast off the derogatory “oriental” term in the 1960s. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders share a number of intersecting histories and issues. Still, it can be considered reductive or tough to relate to and unions and groups may prefer different terminology. (By reductive we mean it reduces the nuanced and complex experiences of an individual to an overly simplistic, broad term.)

Black: a broad term for all people with ethnic origins in the African continent. Less commonly this term is used to refer to all people around the world who are not of white European descent. Note that we encourage capitalising Black (when you’re talking about race) — this is consistent with usage for other ethnic groups like Asian, Arab, Latinx. In the US, the term Black or Black American is typically preferred over African-American for two reasons: it better describes folks who are many generations removed from African ancestors and don’t identify with Africa, and the term African-American has been criticised by some for being a euphemism or overly politically correct term for Black.

BME or BAME: an acronym that stands for Black [and Asian] & minority ethnic. Though generally accepted, as with AAPI (above) and people of colour (below) there’s been some pushback to these terms in recent years for being too reductive, too broad.

Diaspora: a scattered population which originated from a different geographical area; in some cases, it may refer to involuntary mass dispersions of a population from its indigenous territory (e.g. west African people forced into the Atlantic slave trade; Jewish people forced out of Israel).

Ethnocentrism: the tendency to believe that your own ethnic group is centrally important and measure all others using the standards and customs of your own.

Multiracial, mixed heritage, dual heritage, mixed-race, mixed-ethnicity – or simply “mixed”: terms describing a person who has parentage or ancestors from more than one ethnic and/or racial group.

  • 💡Point of clarity: Some people can get confused between interracial and biracial — what’s the difference? An individual can be described as biracial if their heritage is mixed; interracial, on the other hand, is used to describe relationships or interactions between individuals from different racial groups.

People of colour (PoC): an all-encompassing term for non-white people. Though it’s politically correct, it’s taken some heat for being too reductive, too broad. As the Independent’s Tolani Shoneye says, “Yes, all ethnic groups face discrimination and have to deal with racial stereotypes, but it is not the same as being Black, or a Black woman. My struggles are not theirs and nor are my achievements.”

White privilege: the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages and benefits bestowed on people solely because they are white. Worth noting that most white people with this privilege are unaware of it and that these privileges are perpetuated systemically across institutions including in the law, work, medicine, and more.

🚨 Room for debate: why capitalise Black, but not white?

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: technically there is no universally agreed upon convention here.

Here’s why we recommend capitalising Black but not white when referring to a person’s race:

Black is a term to describe people with ethnic origins in the African continent — even when these ancestors are many generations removed — thus should be capitalised consistent with other ethnic terms like Asian, Arab and Latinx. On the flip side, white does not represent a single ethnic origin.

And as DiversityInc’s CEO and founder Luke Visconti has argued, white people simply don’t define themselves by the term white: “Many Black people describe themselves simply as being “Black,” and this reality is reflected in a body of literature, music and academic study. I do not believe “white” needs to be capitalized because people in the white majority don’t think of themselves in that way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just how it is.”

One final note: white supremacists routinely capitalise white, but leave Black in lower case as a way of underscoring their belief that white people are superior to people of other races. Naturally we’d like to distance ourselves as much as possible from that line of logic. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with our view?

📺 Watch this: Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, on conversations that change a system (8 mins)

Appreciating the best language to use when talking about race isn’t just about being respectful when you ‘label’ someone. Language provides tools for conversations and reflection that progress our understanding of race, racism, the way the system we live in works and our role in making that system better.

Points that gave us pause

⏯️  It’s challenging to confront racism because often we don’t feel like we have an “effective comeback” — and that’s because we aren’t given the language for this [00:00-00:45]

⏯️  We don’t have this language by design. We’ve been taught to view racism as binary: either you’re a Klan member or you’re a good person. But then how do you address the more subtle racism of the kind, nice person who treats you differently because of your race? [00:46-01:43]

⏯️  The KKK-style reign of terror is not systemic racism. Rather, it’s an enforcement of systemic racism. Systemic racism is more often economic terrorism, e.g. jobs or homes taken out from under you in the post-Reconstruction South. [01:48-03:00]

⏯️  Our language, our rules of engagement and how we define racism can and should be reframed by us — because we are the ones living it. [04:08-4:53]

⏯️  We need to focus on addressing the systems, rather than the individuals. For instance, lobby to change rules and regulations and procedures to stop the harm from being done to people of color, instead of trying to convince your racist uncle why he shouldn’t vote for Trump [5:40-08:03]

📚 Further reading

For a comprehensive list of racial and ethnic categories in the UK, see UK Gov’s guideIn the US, The Diversity Style Guide is your best bet.

Readers Respond: Which Racial Terms Make You Cringe? from the New York Times is a thought-provoking set of terms that NYT readers take issue with, and why.

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