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Race and Ethnicity

Federal census entities recognize race and ethnicity as separate categories. Accordingly, race is based on physical or biological characteristics and ethnicity refers to a shared culture or ancestry that is linked to language, practices and beliefs or place of origin.

Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System guidelines assign individuals to one of the following race and ethnicity groups.

African American or Black: a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. 

American Indian or Alaska Native: a person having origins in North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment. 

Asian: a person having origins in East Asia, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand and Vietnam. Separated from Pacific Islanders as of 2010. 

Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: a person having origins in Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific Islands. Separate category as of 2010. 

Hispanic or Latino: a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South American, or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race. 

White: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.

Two or More Races. Added in 2010.

Limitations of federal race and ethnicity categories:

This guide recognizes that race and ethnicity are socially constructed and uses them interchangeably with the purpose of more accurately writing about the diversity of MSU. With that said, the current categories are limited and do not accurately capture diversity.

For example, North African and Middle Eastern-identifying individuals are categorized as white, which may not align with the group’s overall experience. The category of Asian combines people of numerous origins despite different multicultural backgrounds. For Asian Americans, this has led to narratives being shaped by majority members. Addressing these limitations in communications can help reduce stereotypes like xenophobia or the model minority myth.

Given the complexity and evolving nature of this topic, the following recommendations offer general guidance on how to refer to racial and ethnic groups.

Use racial and ethnic identification only when it is pertinent to the content. If you include someone’s race and ethnicity, be sure to ask the person how they would like to be identified.

As a rule, communicators should recognize that individual racial and ethnic identity varies and be careful not to prescribe an identity without consent. Avoid stereotypes. Use a multiracial lens and consider all communities of color.

Ensure that headlines, images, captions and graphics are fair and responsible in their depiction of underrepresented people and coverage of issues. Be careful not to use images that depict racial ethnic groups in a deficit manner.

Capitalize Black, Asian, Indigenous, Native, Jewish, Arab, etc. Use as an adjective: Black culture, Asian studies, Jewish people, Muslim faculty, Hispanic, Chicano/a or Latino/a/e/x community, etc. Visit Associated Press News for more info.

Black or African American

  • African American and Black are not synonymous. A person may identify as African or African American or Black from geographical regions or with a distinct cultural heritage, for instance, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latine/x, Afro-Indigenous or Afro-Asian. Be specific in text, speech and graphics when writing about the experiences of a particular community to avoid potential pitfalls.

  • Capitalize Black History Month, Juneteenth and Afrofuturism, and in general, the names of heritage month recognitions and celebrations.

  • When communicating about diverse groups avoid the pitfalls of the Black-white binary that can limit conversations about race to the two groups.

Asian Pacific Islander Desi American and Asian

  • APIDA: acronym for referencing the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American group. Add “and Asian” to be inclusive of international communities, shifting the abbreviation to APIDA/A.

  • Asian American is acceptable for referring to a group of Americans of Asian descent from various countries. When possible, refer to a person’s specific country of origin or follow the person’s preference.

  • The model minority myth presents Asian Americans as exemplary to downplay racism and inequity in the United States. If appropriate, specify an individual’s multicultural background to allow a greater understanding of the disparity experienced by people within broad categories.

  • Pacific Islander encompasses Indigenous peoples within Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, including Native Hawaiian (Kānaka Maoli), Samoan, New Zealander (Māori), Guamanian or Chamorro, Fijian, Tongan and Marshallese peoples and other Pacific Islanders.

  • Desi refers to the diaspora group of people from the Indian subcontinent, or South Asia, that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. List of global diasporas.

North American Indigenous and Native Peoples

  • “American Indian” and “Native American” is culturally outdated, although tribal governments’ names still use the term. Communicators should identify Indigenous people by their specific tribes, nations or communities in text, speeches and graphics.

  • "Indigenous People" refers to a group of Indigenous peoples with a shared national identity. Capitalize "people" when referring to specific groups (e.g., the Indigenous People of Mexico). Otherwise, only capitalize "Indigenous" in Indigenous peoples or "Native" in Native peoples in general. When using "people(s)" with member names, do not capitalize, e.g., "Anishinaabe peoples" or "Ojibwe people."

  • First Nations or First Peoples are acceptable, although First Nations is generally used to describe Native People in Canada.

  • The Indigenous inhabitants in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada are the Anishinaabeg (adjective: Anishinaabe) — Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. Use Anishinaabe with a modifier to identify Anishinaabe peoples, students, leaders, language, etc.

  • The term Native can be used as an adjective to describe cultural practices, such as Native foods, Native art or Native media. When applying use discretion, as the term “going native” is used as a colonial pejorative.

  • Use "two-spirit" to be inclusive of Indigenous North Americans to describe Native peoples who fulfill a third-gender role in their cultures. Māhū in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures are third-gender people, similar to Tongan fakaleiti and Samoan faʻafafine.

  • Use the present tense and make Indigenous people relevant and contemporary. Using the past tense reinforces stereotypes of the “vanishing Indian” and negates the experiences and the dynamic culture, not to mention the displacement of Indigenous peoples.

  • Consider the sensitivity around United States holidays that are celebrations of colonialism, such as Thanksgiving. Instead of Columbus Day, MSU recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October to celebrate the first inhabitants of the Americas.

Hispanic, Chicano/a or Latino/a/e/x

  • While common to see Hispanic, Chicano/a and Latino/a/e/x used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Hispanic generally refers to people with origins in Spanish-speaking countries. Chicano/a refers to people of Mexican descent born in the United States but another term to use can be Mexican American. Latinx or Latino/a refer to people with origins in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, etc. Always follow the person’s preference.

  • Use Latinx for any source who selects it and as an all-gender adjective to describe large groups such as Latinx voters. On first reference, include a brief explanation: “Latinx is a gender-inclusive description of people of Latin American descent who live in the United States.”

  • Latine (la-TEEN-eh) is another gender-inclusive alternative to Latinx that is easier to pronounce and the -e already exists as a gender-neutral form in Spanish. Use Latine over Latinx but always defer to a person's preference.

Middle Eastern and Multiracial

  • Middle Eastern or North African refers to a grouping of countries situated in and around the Middle East and North Africa. The demographic category is used to distinguish from the experiences of white people.

  • Multiracial is the recommended term when referring to people of two or more races and ethnicity groups. 

Racism and Justice

  • AAPI is a common acronym for Asian American and Pacific Islander that is associated with the Stop AAPI Hate movement. Capitalize Asian in anti-Asian. 

  • Lowercase xenophobia, which refers to a groups’ experiences of “outsider” or “international” bias.

  • According to AP style, Black Lives Matter is capitalized when referred to as a noun or movement, and BLM is acceptable on second reference.

  • Use caution when using the terms racist, xenophobic, bigoted, biased and nativist, which should not be used to describe a person but rather a specific policy, system, action or statement. Lowercase anti-racism with a hyphen.

  • Lowercase antisemitism and antisemitic without a hyphen.

  • Capitalize Islamophobia.


  • “African” or “Black slaves” removes agency and does not acknowledge the act of enslavement. Instead use “enslaved Black people” or “enslaved African Americans.”

  • “Blacks,” “colored” or “Negro” are derogatory terms and should not be used.

  • “Brown” has been used for South Asian Americans, Middle Eastern Americans and Hispanic, Chicano/a and Latino/a/x Americans either as a pejorative term or as self-identification. Use specific racial identities.

  • “Caucasian” as a synonym for white, unless in a quotation.

  • “Ghetto” or “slum” as a synonym for the sections of cities inhabited by underrepresented and poor people.

  • Avoid referring to someone from an underrepresented group as “articulate,” as this can reinforce negative tropes.

  • Don’t use the shorthand “POC” for people of color, “BIPOC” for Black, Indigenous and people of color or “QTBIPOC” for queer, transgender, Black, Indigenous and people of color unless in a direct quote; when used, explain it. These are vague terms that may unintentionally leave out race and ethnicity groups or create hierarchy. In some cases, other wording may be appropriate, e.g., “students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds,” “diverse groups,” “various heritages” or “different cultures.” Identify if you are writing about students, staff, faculty, staff, alums, etc.

  • “Racial minority” or “minorities” should be avoided, unless quoted or part of standard reporting. 

  • “Minoritized” or “marginalized” can remove agency and reaffirm deficit language, avoid using unless in a quotation.

  • Terms like “at-risk” or “underprepared” blame the person rather than the structures and barriers that have neglected communities. Move away from deficit language by using “underrepresented,” “underserved” or “historically disadvantaged.” However, use specific group names whenever possible.

  • Indigenous stereotyping and colonial language: “Indian princess,” “tribe,” “Michigan Native,” “low man on the totem pole,” “powwow,” “sitting Indian style,” “bury the hatchet,” “on the warpath,” “shaman,” “rain dance,” “savage,” “barbarian,” “off the reservation,” “spirit animal,” “scalped,” “peace pipe,” “hold down the fort,” “frontier," etc.

  • “Eskimo” is a derogatory term used to stereotype and demean Inuit and Yupik people in the Arctic polar region. It is best to use "Indigenous Australians" instead of "Aboriginal." 


Asian American Journalist’s Association: Guidances and Resources
Best Colleges Conscious Language Guide: Ethnicity, Race and Nationality

Conscious Style Guide: Ethnicity, Race + Nationality

Native American Journalists Association: Reporting Guides 

National Association of Black Journalists: Style Guide

National Association of Hispanic Journalists: Cultural Competence Handbook (2020)

National Museum of the American Indian: The Impact of Words and Tips for Using Appropriate Terminology: Am I Using the Right Word?

Race Forward: Race Reporting Guide

Radical Copy Editor: Thirty Everyday Phrases That Perpetuate the Oppression of Indigenous Peoples (2020)