Writing About Race

The following are some comments about writing about race that I have started to share with my students.

1. Scholars of race in the US avoid using hyphens between terms like “African” and “American or “Asian” and “American.” This convention violates some grammatical rules when the term is used as a compound adjective, but many scholars feel that a hyphen suggests one is somehow less than one or another. This line of thinking has been disputed, and some publications insist that when used as an adjective the terms should include a hyphen. My suggestion is to avoid use of the hyphen when the term is an adjective, but also to be flexible about its use, especially when working with a publisher with its own set of norms. When used as a noun, African American and Asian American are never hyphenated.

The Chicago Manuel of Style (16th Edition), which is one of the leading style guides for writers, has this to say: “Whether terms such as African American, Italian American, Chinese American, and the like should be spelled open or hyphenated has been the subject of considerable controversy, the hyphen being regarded by some as suggestive of bias. Chicago doubts that hyphenation represents bias, but since the hyphen does not aid comprehension in such terms as those mentioned above, it may be omitted unless a particular publisher requires it.”

2. While conventions vary widely, I recommend that you not capitalize “white” or “black”when used to refer to a racial group (and I would rarely, if ever, use “yellow” to refer to race, and “brown” is uncommon as well). Capitalizing suggests a formality that these terms don’t seem to have. Other writers do capitalize. In general, you should use your own judgement and be mindful about what the prevailing norm is in whatever context you are writing.

3. I feel strongly that writers should avoid using the term “Caucasian” as a synonym for “white.” The term was coined by the German philosopher Christoph Meines in the 18th century and refers specifically to people from the Caucasus mountains. One reason he gave for choosing this term is that he thought people from the Caucasus were the most beautiful. This term eventually became part of a nineteenth century effort to understand race as scientific categories that explicitly argued there were physiological bases for racial inequalities. “Scientific racism,” as it eventually came to be known, has since been discredited by anthropologists. Given this history, I frown on the use of the term “Caucasian” as much as I would on the use of terms like “Mongoloid” and “Negroid.”

4. For a time, people of Latin American heritage were referred to as Latinos. But, since Spanish makes use of gendered nouns, it has been pointed out by scholars and activists that this usage excludes women (much in the way using the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to a generic person can exclude women), so it became more common for writers to use a diacritical mark: “Latinos/as.” This is awkward, and also suggested a gender normativity that has left many feeling that this term is also inadequate. Most recently, many writers have started to replace the Spanish noun endings with an x, as in “Latinx.”

5. It’s increasingly becoming the norm to differentiate between “black” and “African American.” The former refers to all the peoples of the world who can trace their ancestry to Africa. This means someone of African descent in Brazil or Jamaica or England as well as in the United States can call themselves black. The latter refers to people of African ancestry who live in the United States primarily, and who often can trace their ancestry back to through the experience of slavery.

6. Rather than use terms like “African American” or “Asian American,” many scholars have since the 1980s begun to refer to an “African diaspora” and an “Asian diaspora.” Diaspora comes from the Greek, and literally means “the casting of seeds.” There is an extensive body of scholarship on this term, and so hard to summarize here. But mainly, diaspora refers to any group of people who have left their homelands, often out of necessity, dispersed to far-flung places, and maintained some sense of group belonging across great distances through constant communication with each other, shared holidays and customs, and shared languages.