I wrote in my last newsletter about the ways the pandemic is necessitating new terms and the various ways those were being used or spelled. This month my thoughts are on the protests occurring across the United States and our current national reckoning with race. Our worlds are shaped by our language, and that is certainly true when it comes to matters of race.

Disagreements About Acceptable Terms

Terms used to describe race and ethnicity have come into and out of favor many times in our country’s history, and they continue to change. Language is both denotative (the literal, dictionary meaning of a word) and connotative (the emotional association and contextual meaning of words or phrases.) Given the charged, political, and personal nature of this topic, there is often a lack of agreement about both the denotative and connotative meanings of words we use when discussing race. Who is included under the umbrella of certain terms? What historic meaning is attached to a word? What are the preferences of those to whom we are referring? These are difficult questions that lack simple answers. And even if we establish best practices for our language at one time, it is inevitable that new terms will arise and norms will shift. That does not mean, however, that we should throw our hands up and not engage with the complexity and fluctuation of the terminology.

For anyone who is frustrated about these changes and lack of clarity or consensus about which words to use, you should keep in mind that our language for everyday objects, pastimes, and experiences are constantly changing as well. We should expect no different from matters as personal and politically dynamic as race. There have been numerous recent news articles about the fluctuation in preferred terms and the emergence of new ones (including here, here, and here.) Editors and writers around the country have been addressing these questions. Decisions are being made and updated as our collective attention has turned to matters of race and equity in the United States.

Terms for Those of African Ancestry

One big question that many have is about the preferred terms for individuals with African ancestry. There is, of course, a very long history of terms for such individuals. Looking first to the past, when discussing slavery, you should refer to individuals as enslaved people, not slaves. The idea is to prioritize in our language the humanity of the individual and not make their identity synonymous with their state of involuntary servitude. This is a similar shift to one that is being made around certain conditions a person might have. For example, some individuals prefer to be referred to as a person with autism spectrum disorder rather than autistic.

When speaking about current racial identifiers for those with African ancestry, there are two main terms in use: African American and Black. When used in written form, they each have an additional question: Should African American be hyphenated, and should Black be capitalized? There is not consensus on these questions at this time, but just a few weeks ago the AP Stylebook officially changed its rule to capitalize Black as a racial identifier, just as one would Latino or Native American. There was an excellent article in the New York Times last month addressing the “black” versus “Black” question. For now, the Times is not capitalizing Black, but the editorial board is considering it. Capitalizing Black, of course, leads to the question of whether to capitalize white as an identifier. That is not only a grammar question, but also a political and philosophical one about in-group participation and the existence of shared experience and whether that applies to the majority group.

There are those who prefer not to use the term Black and identify as African American. When African American is used, the major style guides have moved away from requiring the hyphen in recent years, and it is now more common to use the term without it, just as you do for Asian American or Native American. In general, the term Black seems to be gaining favor for journalists and organizations. There are individuals and organizations, however, who prefer African American. One argument against the use of African American is that it is not necessarily inclusive of all individuals who identify as Black, such as people with Caribbean or South American ancestry. Black and African American are not mutually exclusive, of course. Depending on your subject matter, one or the other may be the more precise term to use.

Terms for People of Color

Speaking of larger groups of individuals, the blanket term “minorities” has fallen out of favor and should be avoided when discussing race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. In the United States, the term people of color (occasionally abbreviated POC) is now favored by many individuals and groups, though it too has its detractors. A newer term that is springing up all over the internet is BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color.) As with many of these terms, it has been championed by some and rejected by others.

Almost every racial and ethnic group has had shifts in preferred terms in recent decades, the emergence of the non-gendered Latinx being one example. Language around LGBTQ+ individuals has likewise changed and debate continues within the community about best terminology. In England, the abbreviation BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) has been widely used for several years, but it is beginning to fall out of favor.

Style Guides

Obviously, there isn’t unanimity around these terms and their correct use. Given the extremely personal and politically consequential nature of these discussions, that should be expected. You should be familiar with your company’s style handbook and, if necessary, challenge it to be updated.

If your organization does not have a style guide or you are still unsure of which term to use (or if you should capitalize a word or hyphenate a term), I highly recommend referencing The Diversity Style Guide from the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. It contains over 700 entries with the latest recommendations on how to reference not only race and ethnicity, but also terminology about health and ability, immigration status, sexuality, religious terms, and more. You can also do a quick search of various publications’ style guides. When referring to a particular individual, it is always best to reach out to that person directly and ask his or her preference. Remember, our language both reflects and shapes our worlds. As situations, connotations, and values changes, our language will change as well.