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Race and Ethnicity

Indigenous, Racial and Ethnic Identity

Social markers and identity are socially constructed and evolve temporally. They work at both the structural and institutional level and are also contested and deeply personal. Following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests in the summer of 2020, many national and local news outlets began having discussions about how they could be more inclusive and respectful of the people and communities they cover. For example, several outlets now capitalize Black when describing people and cultures of African origin. Others also now capitalize Indigenous and Brown, while others do not. Furthermore, there is less consensus among news outlets about whether to capitalize white.

As a general rule, we recommend communicators respect the preferences of the person they are writing about, ask the person their preferred ethno-racial identification term and recognize that individual preferences vary.

Best Practices and Current Guidance

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, according to the Diversity Style Guide. In the case of the United States, tribal membership or citizenship denotes Indigenous identity.

  • Indigenous: Capitalize in order to avoid confusion between indigenous plants and animals and Indigenous human beings.
  • Native Americans have both a legal identity, because of their citizenship in a Native nation, and a racial identity. Native Americans can be of any race.
  • Writers should identify Indigenous people by their specific tribes, nations or communities. Native American bands and tribes are sovereign nations and should be referred to as nations rather than tribes in the second reference.
  • Headlines and text should also refer to tribes by their proper names, not a catch-all phrase like "Oklahoma Native American Tribe or "Native American group." For example: "Santee Sioux Tribe to open first resort in U.S.," not "Native American Tribe to open first resort in U.S."
    Recommendation: The University's Center for Native American and Indigenous Research prefers the University capitalize the term Indigenous. We recommend following its guidance.
  • American Indian:  American Indian and Native American are both generally acceptable and can be used interchangeably, although individuals may have a preference. Note that the term is used only to describe groups of Native Americans—two or more individuals of different tribal affiliation—and not an individual.
  • First Nations and First Peoples are also acceptable, although First Nations is generally used to describe Native people in Canada.
  • Native: The term Native can be used as an adjective to describe styles, for instance, Native fashion, Native music or Native art. Use caution, as this term is primarily used as slang.

Race is a socially constructed category of identification based on the social signification and significance given to physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation or shared culture.

  • A person’s race should not be mentioned unless relevant. This also applies to references to ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion.
  • Avoid stereotypes.
  • Race and ethnicity may be relevant in some stories, including biographical or announcement stories, but be careful about using race or ethnicity to describe a person as the first to accomplish a specific feat. Firsts are important, but race and ethnicity shouldn't be overemphasized. Reserve race or ethnicity for significant, groundbreaking or historic events. Beware of generalizing all members of a group based on the story of one person from that racial community. 
  • We recommend communicators respect the preferences of the person they are writing about, ask the person their preferred ethno-racial identification term and recognize that individual preferences vary.

African American, Black

African American (no hyphen)

 A U.S. born person, of African and especially of Black African descent.

This lineage, while collective, contains a diverse array of histories, cultures and experiences. This includes, but is not limited to, Black, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino and African immigrants living in the United States.

Black and African American do not necessarily mean the same thing and individuals may prefer one term over the other. It’s best to ask.  


People of African descent throughout the world. There are various historical, social and political reasons why one might prefer to identify as Black. See African American.

Black(s), white(s) (n.) Do not use either term as plurals. The current best practice is to use “people first” language, as in Black people, white people, Black teachers, and white students, which is preferable when clearly relevant.

The terms African American, Native American and Asian American don’t have this same problem since American is already a noun like student or neighbor.

On capitalizing Black

Recommendation: Most University communicators have already taken the initiative to uppercase Black in their communications, following the June 2020 update in the Associated Press Stylebook to capitalize Black when referring to race, ethnicity or culture. We recommend the University uppercase Black in its communications.

Asian American, Asian

Asian American (no hyphen)

Asian Americans are U.S. residents of Asian ancestry. Asian Americans are a pan-ethnic group that includes diverse populations with origins in, for example, East Asia and South Asia.

There are many acronyms that are used to describe people from the continent of Asia, including but not limited to Asian Pacific American (APA), Asian Pacific Islander (API), Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), Asian American Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA). Northwestern University and the staff affinity group for this community use APIDA, an umbrella term used within groups to create a more nuanced and specific name for a pan-ethnic term.


The term Asian is as broadly defined as the term Black. In the United States, it has most often been used to describe East Asians (people from China, Japan, Korea, etc.), but in fact includes peoples from West Asia (i.e., Afghanistan, also known as “Middle Eastern”), South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) and Southeast Asia (including Cambodia, Vietnam and Hmong communities). In some usage, chiefly British, Asian refers to Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others.

If relevant, specify the group you are writing about. Reducing a whole continent for brevity’s sake erases their experience and can lead to misinterpretation.

As a general rule, we recommend communicators respect the preferences of the person they are writing about, ask the person their preferred ethno-racial identification term and recognize that individual preferences vary.


BIPOC is an acceptable term for Black, Indigenous and people of color (including Latinx, Asians and others) when speaking generally about this group, but not when not referring specifically to one group—for example, Black people or Native Americans. This term covers the global majority, whose oppression was foundational to the establishment of the Americas that we know now. Use BIPOC as a noun, not an adjective, as people is part of the acronym. BIWOC is an acceptable term for Black women, Indigenous women and women of color. 


The term Brown as a racial or ethnic description should be used with care. Brown has been used to describe such a disparate range of people—Latin, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern and North African—that the meaning is often unclear to readers.

Some tend to capitalize Brown as a created racial or ethnic category like Black. Many people who identify with dual- or more-heritage may also identify with the term Brown, however, there is less consensus than there is around capitalizing Black.

 AP Style says to “avoid this broad and imprecise term in racial, ethnic or cultural references unless as part of a direct quotation,” because interpretations of the term are variable and unique. A more specific description is generally best. 


Mixed-race is more common than biracial, which is a term that is somewhat dated. Identifying as mixed-race is common, and among young mixed-race people, it is not uncommon to see a unique and creative ethno-racial term, for example, MexiRican or Blatinx.

White, white

People in the U.S. who share a lineage that can be traced directly or indirectly to Europe. Whiteness or white is also a racialized identity.


In the media world, there appears to be far less consensus around capitalizing white at this time. Because hate groups and white supremacists have long favored the uppercase style, we want to make University communicators aware of the risk they are taking if they choose to capitalize white. 

The University’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion recommends lowercase use. Further, the Northwestern Anti-Racist White Allies Group also recommends lowercase use. We recommend following their guidance.

An ethnic group is a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language or the like. It is often a combination of ancestral and cultural practices. Within a racial group, there are many diverse ethnicities; these diverse ethnicities often reflect vast differences in cultural histories.

A person may identify/be identified as Black racially but is ethnically Ethiopian. Another example would be that a person is Asian racially, but ethnically Korean.

A person’s ethnicity should not be mentioned unless relevant. But if relevant, specify the group you are writing about. Reducing a whole continent for brevity’s sake erases their experience and can lead to misinterpretation.

As a general rule, we recommend communicators respect the preferences of the person they are writing about, ask the person their preferred ethno-racial identification term and recognize that individual preferences vary.

Chican-o, -a, -@ / Hispanic / Latin-o, -a, -@, -x, -e

Chicano and Chicana refer to people of Mexican descent; Chicano refers to men and Chicana to women. Chican@ (also Latin@) is a post-internet construction that simplifies Chicano/Chicana or Chicano and/or Chicana.

Latino/Latina/Latinx/Hispanic are often used as “umbrella terms” describing people who are, or whose ancestors are, from a Spanish-speaking country. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in reality, Hispanic only refers to persons of Spanish-speaking origin or ancestry, while Latino is accurate to refer to anyone of Latin American origin or ancestry (i.e., Brazilians are Latino but not Hispanic). Note: Latino applies to men, boys and mixed-gender groups (i.e. Latino community); Latina applies to women and girls.

The word Latinx (pronounced la-TEEN-ex or lat-in-X) is a gender-inclusive description for people of Latin American descent who live in the United States. Use it for any source who prefers it, and, if you like, as an all-gender adjective in cases like Latinx voters. 

Don’t stop using Latina or Latino for someone who identifies as such or when you want to specify gender, and don’t take for granted that Latinx is widely understood. This is a rapidly evolving area of language. For that reason, Latino is still accepted as an all-gender plural; consistency is not necessary, because some people do not want Latinx assigned to them. Latine (pronounced la-TEEN-eh) is a gender-inclusive alternative to Latinx that is increasingly gaining acceptance because its vowel ending makes it easier to pronounce than Latinx and the –e already exists as a gender-neutral form in Spanish.


  • For individuals: Honor the person’s preference.
  • For groups (as a pan-ethnic term to be used instead of Latino/Latina): The Northwestern Latina and Latino Studies Program recommends using Latina/Latino/Latinx.
  • It is also acceptable to use just Latino or Latinx, but do so consistently within a press release, publication or other communication.  


Additional Resources/References