Language and definitions

Black American vs. African American

These two terms can mean different things to different people, so it’s best to determine your source’s preference. African American generally refers to someone of African descent, whereas a black American is someone who is not of African descent or who does not identify as African because there are no family ties to the continent. For consistency and inclusivity, the U.S. government refers to large groups as black or African-American, using both terms. In 2007, a Gallup poll showed slight favor toward the term African-American, but the majority of respondents (61%) said it did not matter.


A group of people who identify with one another based on a variety of factors that include race, nationality, language, religion and heritage. Like race, ethnicity is a human construct. Although people sometimes align themselves with certain groups, there is nothing inherent about doing so.

Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Spanish

Hispanic and Latino are the most common terms for people of Latin American descent, or from Spanish-speaking communities. Not everyone within these groups define these terms the same way, however, so it is important to ask sources how they identify instead of making assumptions. Whenever possible, use the most specific term that refers to the country they or their family are from.

  • According to the AP Stylebook, Latino is often the preferred term for people from — or whose ancestors were from — a Spanish-speaking land or culture.
  • The term Spanish-American shouldn’t be applied to a Hispanic or Latino individual unless they are actually from Spain. Many Hispanic/Latino people find being referred to as Spanish an insult. The Spanish colonized Latin America and contributed to the oppression of many within these countries.
  • To refer to a group, the U.S. government uses both terms simultaneously.
Identity politics

Unification of others based on social identities. This can often mean putting groups and specific interests ahead of ideology, and it can have an important role in the way political coalitions and alliances come together in modern American politics. Using identity politics is absolutely essential to helping minority communities.

Interpersonal oppression

When one group claims to have the right to control different groups. This type of oppression can bear close resemblance to systemic oppression. An example of this would be South African whites (Afrikaans) structuring the system against blacks during apartheid.


The idea that identity and power can’t be separated. For example, it can be difficult to analyze white Americans without recognizing the political, economic and social power this group has accumulated over the years. In doing so, white Americans have stopped other groups from gaining power.


Some find the term “Jew” offensive because it has historically been used in a derogatory fashion. Consider using Jewish person instead.


Subdued, often unintended comments to which groups or individuals might take offense. Such instances are examples of casual racism and indicate disconnects between different groups. Example: “Wow, I didn’t think black people liked country music that much.”

Minority vs. Minoritized/Marginalized

A minority is defined as a subordinate group, whereas “minoritized” or marginalized connotes a group of people being pushed to the margins. Minoritized or marginalized is preferred by many people of color.

Native American/American Indian/Indian

Use Indian when referring to people from India. When referring to those of indigenous American heritage, use Native American.


Constructed belief in which members of a group are generalized from a behavioral standpoint. When prejudiced beliefs have to do with race, they can be categorized as forms of racism. Because prejudiced beliefs lack basis in fact, they can often lead to unintended microaggression.


A group of people who share appearance-related characteristics. In terms of physical characteristics and appearances, certain biological factors apply to race. Grouping and separating people into different classes and status, however, is a human-developed construct.

Racial Slurs

Racial slurs should be avoided in copy, but there are exceptions. Reporters and editors should weigh the impact of using racial slurs in quotes when the word is key in describing the oppression felt by marginalized groups.


The belief that one race is inherently inferior to another or can be classified through the use of behavioral generalizations. Racism is primarily evident in structural racism, in which a system of choice is designed to relegate certain people to second-class status, or in casual racism, where the distaste for a specific group is more mental.

Riot vs. Celebration/Protest

“Riot” is often used as coded language to vilify people of color in the media. It is used disproportionately to describe the actions of blacks. This becomes a double standard when riot is used after black citizens burn and destroy public property in protest and a celebration or revelry when whites do the same thing after winning a sports event.

Also make sure to make this distinction: Peaceful protests are not riots, but a protest becomes a riot when violence breaks out. A few isolated incidents may not represent a protest.

Systemic oppression

The economically or legally enforced phenomenon in which groups of people are denied the means of reaching social or class statuses achievable by other groups. Examples of groups experiencing this include African Americans in the United States and women in Saudi Arabia.


This can be another example of coded language when used in a derogatory way to refer to black people as a proxy for the N-word. Avoid it.