Race and ethnicity: Terminology

Language can be a powerful tool that can be used to empower, motivate and inspire us. Language can also offend us or perpetuate harms.

Here is a quick reference list of words and phrases to use and avoid. A comprehensive list of words and terms to avoid is provided below.

Preferred Avoid
multiracial, biracial, multiethnic, polyethnic mulatto
white people Caucasian
Black people coloured, blacks, African-American (in a Canadian context), negro
Equity deserving groups Minority, visibility minority
Use specific geographic region when grouping countries together Developed/developing country, third world
Enslaved person, enslavement, enslaver Slave, slavery, slave owner/master
Use the name of the neighborhood or area or terms like city center, downtown, central urban Ghetto, inner-city
Asian people, Asian Canadian individuals Orientals
Use regional terms (e.g., An individual from Pakistan) any colloquial or derogatory terms for peoples
international people, newcomers, refugees Foreigners, illegal aliens

Terms and definitions

Race and equity

Here is a list of terms and definitions to help build a shared understanding when it comes to conversations and writings around the topic of race and equity.

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  • The study of Africa, its history and culture from a non-European perspective. The term Afrocentrism was first coined in 1976 by Molefi Kete Asante and can be defined as rediscovering African and Black achievement, restoring Africa's rightful place in history, and establishing its importance on par with European history, culture and accomplishment.


  • Anti-racism is a process, a systematic method of analysis, and a proactive course of action rooted in the recognition of the existence of racism, including systemic racism. Anti-racism actively seeks to identify, remove, prevent, and mitigate racially inequitable outcomes and power imbalances between groups and change the structures that sustain inequities.


  • A person who makes the commitment and effort to recognize their privilege (based on gender, class, race, sexual identity, etc.) and work in solidarity with oppressed groups in the struggle for justice.
  • Allies understand that it is in their own interest to end all forms of oppression, even those from which they may benefit in concrete ways.
  • Allies commit to reducing their own complicity or collusion in oppression of those groups and invest in strengthening their own knowledge and awareness of oppression.


  • Characteristics that make up an individual person. This includes traits such as race, gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, religion, ability, socioeconomic class, family structure, and more.
  • Every person is diverse in some way.


  • Categorizes groups of people according to their cultural expression and identification. Commonalities such as national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin may be used to describe someone’s ethnicity.
  • While someone may say their race is “Black,” their ethnicity might be Italian, or someone may say their race is "White," and their ethnicity is Irish.


  • A fair, respective and inclusive treatment of each and every individual that considers individual and group diversities. Equity emphasizes that fairness cannot be achieved when everyone is treated the same way, and rather honours and accommodates to specific needs.


  • Inclusion is the practice or policy of including and integrating all people and groups in activities, organizations, political processes, etc., especially those who experience forms of discrimination or societal disadvantage.
  • Understanding equity through the lens of inclusion can be dangerous because of a failure to take into account the living and material conditions that actively prevent individuals from being included. Considering these barriers to access and opportunity is essential to understanding how organizations can actively work towards creating equitable spaces.


  • Coined by critical race theorist, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectionality is a framework for understanding how different aspects of a person's social and political identities, including race, sex, gender identity and expression, etc., can intersect in ways that produce different forms of discrimination and privilege.


  • Sociologically, multiculturalism assumes that society benefits from increased diversity through the harmonious coexistence of different cultures.


  • Socially constructed differences among people based on characteristics such as accent or manner of speech, name, clothing, diet, beliefs and practices, leisure preferences, places of origin and so forth.


  • The process by which societies construct races as real, different and unequal in ways that matter to economic, political and social life.
  • Recognizing that race is a social construct, the Ontario Human Rights Commission describes people as “racialized person” or “racialized group” instead of the more outdated and inaccurate terms “racial minority”, “visible minority”, “person of colour” or “non-White”.

Racial and social identities

Here is a list of terms and definitions to help build a shared understanding when it comes to conversations and writings around the topic of race and equity. Use specific identities when possible.

Disclaimer: people may identify with multiple identities.

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Asian Canadian

  • Asian Canadian is for people who come from Asia or descend from people who lived in Asia. Do not hyphenate. When possible, ask people how they identify (Asian Canadian or Chinese Canadian, Japanese Canadian, etc.). You may use the umbrella term South Asian to refer to Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and others would be known as East Asians.

biracial and multiracial

  • Biracial refers to people of two races; multiracial refers to people of two or more racial backgrounds. Preferred terms include multiracial, biracial, multiethnic, polyethnic.


  • The Canadian Press Stylebook capitalizes Black as a proper name for a person's race. The broad term brown also remains lowercase and is best avoided except in a quote.


  • Describes a community of people who live outside their shared country of origin or ancestry but maintain active connections with it. A diaspora includes both immigrants, refugees and their descendants.


  • An umbrella term referring to a person whose ethnic origin is in a Spanish-speaking country. The term can be used to describe the people and culture of Spain as well as Latin America.


  • Generally used to describe the scarf many women who are Muslims use to cover their head. It can also refer to the modest dress, in general, that women wear because of the Quran’s instruction on modesty.


  • Immigrant refers to a person who is, or who has ever been, a landed immigrant or permanent resident. Such a person has been granted the right to live in Canada permanently by immigration authorities. While it can be used to provide readers or viewers with background information, the relevancy of using the term should be made apparent in the story.


  • Umbrella terms referring to people with Latin American cultural or ethnic ancestry and identity.


  • A gender-neutral word, increasingly used instead of Latino and/or Latina, to refer to people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity. This term should be confined to quotations, names of organizations or descriptions of individuals who request it.


  • A recent immigrant or landed immigrants who came to Canada up to five years prior to a given census year.

People of Colour (POC)

  • Describes people of races other than white. While it can be useful to have an inclusive umbrella term, it is also important whenever possible to identify people by their specific racial/ethnic group as each has its own distinct experience. Be aware that the term evokes strong feelings among many people, and some don't like the idea of lumping people of different racial/ethnic groups together. (Capitalize “P” and “C”).


  • Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.


  • Most Islamic clergymen use the title sheikh like a Christian cleric uses the Rev. Sheikh also is used as a secular title. Capitalize it when used before a name, but lowercase otherwise.

South Asian

  • Collective term refers to people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Desi American is a term commonly used by people from India, but not by all South Asians. Check with the source/individual to confirm how they prefer to be identified and ensure that identifying their race/ethnicity is essential to the content.


  • “Whiteness” is a socio-cultural identity, related to but not quite the same as the simplistic modern white/Caucasian racial category assumed to describe those with relatively lighter skin tone and of ancestry from certain European regions. It carries assumptions of excellence and superiority relative to other cultures and racial categories that create a mental and emotional barrier to acknowledging and supporting the inherent equality, dignity, and worth of other human beings. Whiteness comes with a set of conscious and subconscious beliefs and justifications from several sources such as history, economics, pseudo biological science and religion, among others.
  • Source: givingupwhiteness.com/post/what-is-whiteness

White supremacy culture/logic:

  • Modes of thinking that are artificial, historically constructed culture which expressed, justified, and binds together the white supremacy system. This “logic” has been noted as “the glue that binds together white-controlled institutions into systems and white-controlled systems into global white supremacy system”. Anyone can ascribe to white supremacist and not be white supremacist so it can be the things we say or the things that we do. It means that we are able to exist and sign up for it.
  • Source: dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html

Forms of racism and racial discrimination

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antisemitism (not anti-Semitism)

  • Prejudice against or hatred toward Jews. Should be spelled without a hyphen to avoid lending credence to the archaic and discredited concept of Jewish people as a separate “semitic” race. Avoid antisemite except in a quote

anti-Black racism

  • Anti-Black racism is defined as the policies and practices rooted in political institutions such as, education, health care, and justice that mirror and reinforce beliefs, attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping and/or discrimination towards people of Black-African descent.
  • The term “anti-Black racism” was first expressed by Dr. Akua Benjamin, a Ryerson Social Work Professor. It seeks to highlight the unique nature of systemic racism on Black-Canadians and the history as well as experiences of slavery and colonization of people of Black-African descent in Canada.

anti-Indigenous racism

  • Anti-Indigenous racism is the ongoing race-based discrimination, negative stereotyping, and injustice experienced by Indigenous Peoples within Canada. It includes ideas and practices that establish, maintain and perpetuate power imbalances, systemic barriers, and inequitable outcomes that stem from the legacy of colonial policies and practices in Canada.
  • Systemic anti-Indigenous racism is evident in discriminatory federal policies such as the Indian Act and the residential school system. It is also manifest in the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in provincial criminal justice and child welfare systems, as well as inequitable outcomes in education, well-being, and health.
  • Individual lived experiences of anti-Indigenous racism can be seen in the rise in acts of hostility and violence directed at Indigenous people.

cultural appropriation

  • Refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn't respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression. Appropriation can be seen as an assault on culture.

institutional racism

  • When policies and practices put people who are not of the dominant race at a disadvantage. This happens in government, business, education at all levels, news and entertainment media and other institutions.
  • Examples: Housing policies that turn away single parents, parents with more children or people with lower incomes can be forms of institutional racism. Hiring and promotion patterns can reflect institutional racism. When people say an institution is racist, they may not be referring to intent, but to the structure and policies of the institution.


  • Fear and prejudice against Muslims based on the idea that Islam is inferior and barbaric and cannot adapt to new realities. It also encompasses the belief that Western and Eastern civilizations have irreconcilable differences in political, economic and social beliefs.

linguistic racism

  • Discrimination based on accent, dialect or speech patterns. Acts of linguistic racism can be overt or covert. For example, an overt act would be mocking someone for the way they speak. On a covert level, a person may be told they are unintelligible because they speak with an accent or they may be complimented for speaking English well, even if they were born or grew up speaking that language.
  • Examples: “Where are you from?” “You speak English well for someone who looks like you;” and “You don’t sound Black.”


  • An ideology that either directly or indirectly asserts that one group is inherently superior to others. It can be openly displayed in racial jokes and slurs or hate crimes, but it can be more deeply rooted in attitudes, values and stereotypical beliefs. In some cases, these are unconsciously held and have become deeply embedded in systems and institutions that have evolved over time. Racism operates at several levels: individual, systemic and societal.

racial microaggression

  • Slights and snubs based on racial discrimination. Microaggressions can be questions or expressions about a person’s identity or abilities. They can be behaviors. Racial microaggressions include judgments like “You don’t act like a normal Black person.” They can be actions like locking the car door when a person perceived as a threat walks by.

racial profiling

  • Racial profiling is any action undertaken for reasons of safety, security or public protection, that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin, or on a combination of those traits, rather than on a reasonable suspicion, to single out an individual for greater scrutiny or different treatment.


  • Assumptions made about people based on perceived traits. The process of stereotyping involves using social groupings (e.g., ethnic origin, race, colour, citizenship status, etc.) to remember information about other people/groups.

systemic racism

  • Social values that support personal and institutional discrimination. As a social concept, systemic racism explains how non-white people must adapt to a society not built for them, while white people readily fit in.

Words and phrases to avoid

It is important not to use words that will offend others because many common words or phrases are rooted in racism. Here is a list of words and terms to avoid. Any word perceived as a slur or epithet should be avoided in all professional communication.

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All Lives Matter

  • When the Black Lives Matter motto arose, some people interpreted the phrase as confrontational and divisive. They took it to exclude other races. The phrase “all lives matter” sprang up in response, ostensibly to argue all lives are equal because we are all human beings. However, Black Lives Matter was not intended to mean that other lives do not matter. In a world where Black people are stigmatised, marginalised, and discriminated against, Black Lives Matter simply recognises that Black lives matter, too.


  • Avoid as a synonym for white. In anthropology, Caucasian or Caucasoid usually includes some or all the populations of Europe, the Caucasus (a region in Europe between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, which includes Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Russia, Turkey and Iran), Asia Minor, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.


  • An archaic term for Black. In some African countries, coloured denotes those of mixed racial ancestry. Do not use unless referring to official names, historical events or in quotes.

developing/developed country

  • Term used to describe nations of the world that are considered more or less economically and technologically advanced. However, there is no established benchmarks from the United Nations for what constitutes a country that is “developing”. The colonial influence of “developed” and “developing” is increasingly being acknowledged which is wrapped up in stereotypes and preconceptions. If you are grouping countries together use their geographic location.


  • Frequently used to describe things that come from countries outside North America and Western Europe or cultures other than White. Like exotic, the word connotes otherness and can be seen as marginalizing and offensive. In general, try to avoid. When writing about things from multiple cultures use terms like international music, global food or world cuisine.


  • “Foreign” is an acceptable word when used to describe policies but referring to a person as “foreign” or a “foreigner” leaves a bad taste. Anyone called by that term is automatically labeled as “other” – someone that doesn’t belong.


  • Used as a synonym for sections of cities inhabited by people of a low socioeconomic status or marginalized groups. Avoid this term because of its negative connotations. Often the name of the neighbourhood is the best choice. Section, district or quarter may also be used.

inner city

  • A term used as a euphemism for lower-income residential districts, sometimes — but not exclusively — referring to Black neighborhoods in a downtown or city center. Instead, use neutral adjectives like city center, downtown or central urban when referring to city neighborhoods and words like under-resourced or low-income when referring to neighborhoods or communities with high poverty rates.

racial minority

  • These terms have historically referred to non-white racial groups, indicating that they were numerically smaller than the dominant white majority. Defining people of color as “minorities” is not recommended because of changing demographics and the ways in which it reinforces ideas of inferiority and marginalization of a group of people. Defining people by how they self-identify is often preferable and more respectful. The term “minority” may be needed in specific cases (such as “minority contracting” and “minority-owned businesses”) to reflect data that is collected using those categories. Avoid referring to an individual as a minority.

third world

  • Originally used to distinguish nations that were aligned with neither the West nor with the East during the Cold War. Commonly used to describe emerging economies like Africa, Asia and Latin America. These nations and the people there are often cast as being uncivilized or primitive. Avoid using this term because of its negative connotations.