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Eliminating ethnic and racial stereotypes

We live in a country that is diverse in so many ways. And the diversity of Canada's population in terms of origin, descent, ethnicity, race, language, culture and other characteristics is reflected in language. Because language plays a leading role in group relations and conflicts, it is important for writers to reflect diversity in a positive light by using non-discriminatory language and avoiding stereotypes.

Ethnic and racial stereotypes are broad depictions of what are thought to be typical or innate characteristics of members of a particular group. These stereotypes are offensive and should be avoided even when the characteristics described might be viewed as positive.

Certain types of designations and expressions are sometimes used to portray groups as inferior or superior to others. In addition, writers often use language and terminology to describe individuals and groups in relation to a given norm. As a result, racial or ethnic features are overemphasized, and other more important or relevant features are ignored. We see this frequently, for example, in news headlines and reports (e.g. Pakistani driver charged with negligence). Writers are also prone to overgeneralize and underspecify, in other words, use sweeping statements to describe all members of a particular group or to describe what a writer thinks is a group but is in fact more than one group (e.g. Canada's "black" community. There is not a dominant black community in Canada.) All of these factors can offend your readers and make your writing less effective.

Avoiding common pitfalls like ethnic clichés and racial stereotypes, and reflecting diversity is not always easy. In general, it is inappropriate to refer to the ethnic or racial background of a person or group unless these distinctions are relevant to your text. Also, you should use specific terms whenever possible. For example, Nigerian is more specific than African, and Laotian is more specific than Southeast Asian or Asian.

You should also use the appropriate terminology to describe ethnically and racially diverse groups. This can be a challenge, since finding the correct designations may require a bit of research. For example, "Arab" refers to a member of an Arabic-speaking people and is not synonymous with Muslim. You should also keep in mind that certain preferred designations may change over time. Terms that were acceptable 10 or even 5 years ago might not be acceptable now. For example, "Negro" and "coloured" are acceptable in certain historical contexts, but in current usage, "black" and sometimes "Black" (with an upper-case "b") are more common. You should consult your style sheet or another authoritative source (see references below) when in doubt about the appropriate vocabulary to use.

This section offers a list of useful terms and guidelines to help you eliminate harmful stereotypes and keep your writing up to date. And don't forget to test your skills by taking the quiz Eliminating Ethnic and Racial Stereotypes.

Arab (adj., n.), Arabic (adj., n.), Arabian (adj.), Muslim (adj., n.)
Arab designates a member of an Arabic-speaking people and is not synonymous with Muslim, which designates a follower of the Islamic faith. Not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslim. Arabic is the language of the Arabs and is often associated with the Islamic faith. Use the adjectives Arabic and Arab, not Arabian, which is obsolete in contemporary contexts.

Note: When referring to events in a specific country, name the country rather than using the term Arab.
Asian (adj., n.)
Asian is a broad term designating a person of Asian descent. Asia can be divided into five large divisions: Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and West Asia. Considering the diversity of the peoples within these divisions (Chinese, Kurds, Indonesians, etc.), it is better to use a more specific term.
Black, black (adj., n.), person/people of colour (n.), Canadian of colour (n.), African Canadian (adj., n.) Negro (adj., n.), coloured (adj.), non-white (adj., n.)
Black/black designates any of various ethnic groups with dark-coloured skin, especially of African descent. Black can be either upper- or lower-cased; however, in Canada, the lower-cased spelling seems to be more common. Black should be used as an adjective rather than a noun (e.g. black people, Black studies).

Designations such as person/people of colour and, more specifically, Canadian of colour, are usually limited to political contexts of anti-racism. African Canadian is gaining popularity as a designation for black Canadians of African descent but excludes black Canadians of other descents and non-black Africans. African-Canadian (hyphenated) is more frequently used as an adjective (e.g. African-Canadian studies). In general, Negro and coloured should be avoided but are acceptable in some historical contexts. Coloured is not synonymous with person of colour.

Non-white, used as either an adjective or a noun, should be avoided as it suggests white as the norm.

Note: There are no generally accepted terms to refer to other dark-skinned peoples, such as Tamils.
citizenship (n.)
Citizenship relates to an individual's legal status in a specific country
ethnicity (n.), ethnic (adj.), ethnic group (n.), ethnic cliché (n.)
Ethnicity is a broad term designating a category of individuals sharing a distinctive cultural and historical background, often determined by race, nationality, geographic origin and religion. However, ethnicity can also refer to an individual's origin by birth or descent rather than nationality or citizenship (e.g. ethnic Albanian). Ethnic should be used as an adjective rather than a noun (e.g. ethnic food) and is not a synonym for "not the norm." An ethnic group is a group with which individuals self identify or are identified on the basis of their ethnicity. An ethnic cliché is an overused expression, either negative or positive, that attributes a certain characteristic or quality to all members of a particular group. Ethnic clichés should be avoided.

Note: Some individuals belong to more than one ethnic group, while others do not identify themselves with any particular group.
exotic (adj.)
Avoid using the term exotic to describe Asian, African, Hispanic or other cultures.
Hispanic (adj.), Latino/a (n., adj.), Spanish (n., adj.)
Hispanic is a broad term designating Spanish-speaking peoples in the Americas and Europe. Hispanic is often mistakenly used to refer to those with non-Spanish language backgrounds, such as Portuguese speakers in Brazil. Latino/a usually designates Latin Americans in the United States. Spanish refers only to Spain and its language and people.
immigrant (n.)
Immigrant designates a person who moves from his or her native country to another one with the intention of settling. The term should not be used to refer to people of other ethnicities.
Indian (adj., n.)
Indian designates a person from India or of Indian descent. If the term might be confused with First Nations, use "people from India" or "Indian Canadian."
nationality (n.)
Nationality is a broad term used to refer to citizenship and ethnicity.
Oriental (adj.)
Oriental is a broad term used to describe a person of East Asian descent, and should be used only as an adjective. It is better to name a specific country rather than use Oriental.
race (n.)
Race is a broad term designating a category of individuals characterized by similar visible physical features, primarily skin and hair colour, and geographical origin. Race should not be used to account for the behaviour, aptitudes, etc. of individuals or groups.
visible minority (adj., n.), member of a visible minority (n.), minority (adj., n.), minority group (n.)
A visible minority is defined in the Employment Equity Act as a person, other than an Aboriginal person, who is non-Caucasian in race and non-white in colour. Member of a visible minority is the preferred term. The term minority is often criticized as it implies that the group it designates is inferior to the majority.

Note: Sometimes, groups labelled as minority groups are actually the majority (e.g. French speakers in Quebec).


Hard copy

Editing Canadian English (2nd Edition) (2000)

Guide to Canadian English Usage (2001)

The Canadian Style (1997)

The Globe and Mail Style Book (1998)


Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF): CRRF Glossary of Terms