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Ethnicity, Race, and Nationality

Written by Darlene Earnest
Reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Updated September 30, 2022

Why it's important

Racial and ethnic diversity in the United States continues to grow, according to U.S. Census Bureau findings. People identifying as white and non-Hispanic decreased from 63.7% of the U.S. population in 2010 to 57.8% in 2020, the lowest on record.1

And demographic shifts are especially dramatic among young Americans, with less than half of those under 15 identifying as white as of 2018, according to Census findings.2 In the 2015-16 academic year, 45% of undergraduates identified as a race or ethnicity other than white.3

As our population diversifies, we should take care when identifying a person's race, ethnicity, and nationality. Whenever possible, try to find out how a person identifies themself. Your next-door neighbor may prefer to be identified as Haitian American instead of African American. Your co-worker may prefer the term Latinx over Latina. Your friend may consider themselves American Indian, not Native American.

Respecting a person's identity by using the correct language to refer to their race or ethnicity can make them feel seen and included.

People of Color

The term “people of color” and its initialism “POC” are generally acceptable when referring to people who identify with racial or ethnic groups other than white in the United States.

The acronym “BIPOC” refers to Black, Indigenous, and people of color. This recent term acknowledges the unique relationship and history that Black and Indigenous people have had with white supremacy in the U.S. It may be appropriate to use depending on the context.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

“Asian American” is used to describe Americans of Asian descent. “Pacific Islander” describes people with roots to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands. Using the initialism “AAPI” to refer to these two groups may be appropriate, depending on the context.

However, try to avoid generalizations whenever possible. Try and use the same language that a person or group uses to self-identify, which may be more specific (e.g., Filipino American, Korean American).

Black vs. African American

Although “Black” and “African American” are often used interchangeably to describe people of African descent in the U.S., current best practice is to use “Black” rather than “African American” whenever identity preferences are unknown. As always, follow a person’s preference in how they want to be identified. For example: Black, African American, Afro-Latino, Caribbean American.

Use Black as an adjective in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense (e.g., “Black authors”). Never use it as a standalone noun (e.g., “a Black”).

Capitalize the “b” in “Black.” This is a recent change among many news organizations, such as The Associated Press and The New York Times. This is a change that many people have sought for years to better represent a shared culture rather than just a skin tone.4

Indigenous Americans

Whenever possible, use the specific names of the Indigenous groups you are talking to or about. If the specific nations or tribes cannot be named, use “Indigenous.” Note that some Indigenous people prefer “Indigenous American,” “American Indian,” or “Native American.” Some prefer “nation” or “tribe.” It is always best to check the preferred terminology, if possible.

“Native-led” is accepted if an organization uses that modifier to describe itself.

Latino/a, Latine, Latinx, and Hispanic Americans

“Latinx” has recently emerged as a gender-neutral alternative to the gendered terms “Latino” and “Latina.”

In the U.S., the first uses of “Latinx” appeared more than a decade ago, and “Latinx” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018.5 While usage of this term may be growing, only a very small percentage of respondents in a 2020 Pew Research Center poll said they used the term to describe themselves.6 “Latine” is a slightly older gender-neutral term created by LGBTQ+ Spanish speakers.

Use “Latine” or “Latinx” if a person or organization self-identifies that way. Otherwise, use “Latino/a” and “Latinos/as” (e.g., “Latino/a populations,” “Latinos/as in the United States”).

“Hispanic” refers to people with roots from Spanish-speaking countries, while “Latino,” “Latina,” “Latine,” and “Latinx” refer to people with roots in Latin America. These terms should not be used interchangeably, though they are often mistakenly used that way.

Instead of generalizations, use more specific identifications when possible (e.g., Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Mexican American, Cuban).

Middle Eastern or North African American

The Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region broadly represents people and communities with heritages and cultural roots between the Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, and North Africa.7 Overall, the MENA region includes approximately 19 countries, including Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, and Afghanistan.8

Although MENA is not recognized in the current version of the U.S. Census,9 as of 2019, there were over 1.3 million immigrants10 in the U.S. that come from the region.

Generally speaking, there is no broad term that encompasses individuals from MENA, and it is advised that you refer to the ethnicity and country of origin when speaking to or about someone from the MENA region (e.g., Yemeni for someone from Yemen or Iranian for a person from Iran).

Multiracial and Biracial

A 2020 U.S. Census report shows the number of people identifying themselves with two or more races increased by 276% from 2010-2020.11

When referring to people with more than one racial heritage, “biracial” and “multiracial” are generally acceptable. Avoid the term “mixed race.”

Historically Excluded Groups

hint: scroll to view the full table

Do Use

historically excluded
Consider using this term when appropriate, especially as a replacement for "underrepresented."

Use Caution

racial minority

"Racial minority" is generally an acceptable term for people in the United States who do not identify as white. However, it is better to be specific and avoid grouping together multiple racial and/or ethnic communities.

underrepresented

"Underrepresented" may be acceptable depending on the context. As always, aim to be as specific as possible and avoid generalizing about broad groups of people.

Don’t Use

non-white
The phrase "non-white" is viewed by some as making white people the racial norm.12 Try to be more specific, or use "people of color."
Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Reviewed by:

Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in English and successful writing at Central Washington University for over 21 years. Currently, Abdalla serves as a Washington state career coach and advocate for individuals on temporary state assistance. Abdalla has devoted her career, teaching, and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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Sources

  1. Jensen, E., Jones, N., Rabe, M., Pratt, B., Medina, L., Orozco, K., & Spell, L. (2021, August 12). The chance that two people chosen at random are of different race or ethnicity groups has increased since 2010. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/2020-united-states-population-more-racially-ethnically-diverse-than-2010.html
  2. Frey, W. H. (2019, June 24). Less than half of U.S. children under 15 are white, census shows. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/less-than-half-of-us-children-under-15-are-white-census-shows/
  3. American Council on Education. (n.d.). Race and ethnicity of U.S. undergraduates. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.equityinhighered.org/indicators/enrollment-in-undergraduate-education/race-and-ethnicity-of-u-s-undergraduates/
  4. Coleman, N. (2020, July 5). Why we're capitalizing Black. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/05/insider/capitalized-black.html
  5. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). 'Latinx' and gender inclusivity. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-history-latinx
  6. Noe-Bustamante, L., Mora, L., & Lopez, M. H. (2020, August 11). About one-in-four U.S. Hispanics have heard of Latinx, but just 3% use it. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/11/about-one-in-four-u-s-hispanics-have-heard-of-latinx-but-just-3-use-it/
  7. The World Bank. (n.d.). Middle East and North Africa. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/mena
  8. Office of the United States Trade Representative. (n.d.). Middle East/North Africa (MENA). Retrieved January 31, 2022, from https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/europe-middle-east/middle-east/north-africa
  9. Wang, H. L. (2018, January 29). No Middle Eastern or North African category on 2020 census, bureau says. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/01/29/581541111/no-middle-eastern-or-north-african-category-on-2020-census-bureau-says
  10. Harjanto, L. & Batalova, J. (2022, January, 13). Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/middle-eastern-and-north-african-immigrants-united-states
  11. Jones, N., Marks, R., Ramirez, R., & Ríos-Vargas, M. (2021, August 12). 2020 census illuminates racial and ethnic composition of the country. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-measures-reveal-united-states-population-much-more-multiracial.html
  12. Burke, N. S. (2018, January 12). The end of non-whites. Medium. https://natalie4health.medium.com/the-end-of-non-whites-bcb702b0045e