General Guidelines

Updated: March 31, 2023

Race and ethnicity are not the same. Race is a social construct that has historically been used to classify human beings according to physical or biological characteristics. Ethnicity is something a person acquires or ascribes to and refers to a shared culture, such as language, practices, and beliefs.

Further, consider carefully when deciding to identify a person by race. Often, it is an irrelevant factor and drawing unnecessary attention to someone’s race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry. Use AP Stylebook guidance for examples of when race is pertinent.

In this style guide, we attempt to provide basic guidance on style for:

  • African American / Black (the B in Black is capitalized per AP style; African American is not hyphenated per AP style)
  • Hispanic / Latinx/o/a and related terms (Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. Hispanics/Latinos can be of any race.)
  • Asian American and Pacific Islanders and related terms (no hyphen)
  • American Indian and related terms (no hyphen)
  • Arab, MENA, or SWANA
  • White (the w in white is not capitalized, per AP style)

Editor’s note: Given the complexity and evolving nature of this topic, we will continually update this section so it is as current, inclusive, and useful as possible. Please send questions and suggestions for additions and changes to

General writing guidelines

  • Focus on the person—their achievement, their leadership, their scholarship, their research, etc.—not their race and ethnicity.
  • Ensure that headlines, images, captions, and graphics are fair and responsible in their depiction of people of color and coverage of issues.
  • Use racial and ethnic identification when it is pertinent to a story and use it fairly, identifying white individuals if people of other races/ethnicities are identified.
  • Avoid stereotypes.
  • If you are including a person’s race in the content you’re creating, be sure it is necessary to mention it, and ask the person how they prefer to be identified.
  • Many BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) are told that their names are too complicated or too difficult to pronounce. Use the name that the subject asks you to use and do not ask to use a nickname instead. Also, be sure to include any accents or diacritics in the person’s name rather than removing them to better align with English characters.
    • Example: Use señora instead of senora, and Nguyễn instead of Nguyen.
    • Editor’s note: We understand that many limitations exist in the digital space, such as in many email fields. The university should investigate what can be done on a larger scope to rectify this. If you know of a possible solution, email the editor.

Source: Race Forward.

Quick guidance

Below is a list of preferred terms, though it is permissible to deviate from this list based on the person’s preferred racial and ethnic identification.

African American, Black

African American and Black are not synonymous. A person may identify as Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean, for instance, or Haitian American or Jamaican American. A person also may identify specifically as African rather than African American, such as Ghanaian or Congolese.

Iowa capitalizes the B in Black when referring to people who are part of a shared identity or culture, per AP style.

African American is not hyphenated. Never use the word colored or Negro as a descriptor. Likewise, Afro American is an archaic descriptor and should not be used.

In the body of a piece, use Black people, not Blacks, to refer to a group. Do not use Black as a singular noun, such as a Black.


Asian, Asian American

When writing about someone or a group of this background, it usually makes more sense to refer to a specific background—e.g., Japanese, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino. Use that term rather than a collective noun.

Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA): This is the preferred term to use, versus Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), or Asian American and Pacific Americans. The latter is considered correct, but for consistency's sake, Iowa recommends the preferred use.

South Asian: This collective term refers to people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Desi American is a term commonly used by people from India, but not by all South Asians.


American Indian, Alaska Native, Hawaiian Native, Native American, Native People, Indigenous People

The most inclusive and accurate term to use to refer to those who inhabited land that became the United States (or, previously, territories) is American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN).

You may also see the terms:

  • Native People(s)
  • First People(s)
  • First Nations
  • Tribal Peoples
  • Tribal Communities
  • Indigenous People(s)

The person may prefer that you refer to them by their tribally specific nation.

American Indians and Alaska Natives/Hawaiian Natives have a distinct political and cultural identification constructed in and through treaties, executive orders, and the Constitution. American Indian and Alaska Native/Hawaiian Natives’ cultural identification is place-based, diverse, and informed by the practices of their culture (e.g., language, singing, dancing, ceremonies).


Hispanic, Latino/a, Latinx, Latin@, Chicano/a

Latinx/o/a is increasingly used and is the standard descriptor at Iowa, unless the individual or people prefer another term.

While it is common to see Hispanic and Latinx/o/a used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Hispanic generally refers to people with origins in Spanish-speaking countries. Latinx/o/a generally refer to people with origins in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In some cases, Hispanic people also identify as Latinx/o/a and vice versa. Generally, people from Brazil or Haiti do not identify as Hispanic, but may identify as Latinx/o/a.

Avoid the term Latin unless it is a reference to Latin America.

Latina(s) is appropriate for individuals who identify as a woman/women, unless the person/people prefer

Latinx. Follow the preference of the person/people in all cases. Chicano/a is a term that refers to Americans of Mexican ancestry.

  • The Chicano movement includes a focus on being of Mexican ancestry and having indigenous roots.

The legitimacy of this identity is contested, as many people who identify as Chicano/a claim to have indigenous roots but cannot name their family’s tribe/nation and are not connected to or affiliated with the tribe/nation. It’s also important to note that Chicano/a isn’t merely a term, it’s a sociopolitical identity, so it shouldn’t be placed on people without them claiming it first.

In all, you should practice extreme caution when using Chicano/a. A better term to refer to Americans of Mexican ancestry is simply Mexican-American.

Be sure to ask the individual/group how they prefer to be identified. The individual may prefer, for example, a gender-inclusive and neutral term like Latinx or Latin@, or a broader term, like Afro-Latino. (The person may identify as both African or African American or Black and Latino/a.)

Also be aware of gender when using Latino and Chicano in your writing.

Latinidad, Latin@, and Latinx are emerging terms that may be favored by younger generations.

Note that federal policy defines Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race. Hispanics/Latinos can be of any race.


Arab, MENA, or SWANA

When creating content, be sure to ask the individual/group how they prefer to be identified. MENA and SWANA both are acceptable, depending on the preference of the individual or group.


Arab, MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) or SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) are terms used to describe people from the countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Western Sahara.

People from these countries sometimes are unfairly associated with the politics and violence that occurred in the world around 9/11 and face related discriminatory experiences.

In addition, some people from these countries find it problematic that many United States government agencies do not offer adequate representation of their identity, meaning any potential disparities or inequalities faced by MENA or SWANA Americans remain hidden.

The U.S. Census Bureau collects race and ethnicity data following the U.S. Office of Management and Budget guidelines, which set the standard for all federal data collection and also can influence other governmental entities that apply for federal funding. The most recent update to the standards for the classification of federal data on race and ethnicity was made in October 1997.

While the addition of a MENA category to 2030 U.S. Census forms has been proposed, people from these countries must currently identify as white or as European.

The University of Iowa also does not include a Middle Eastern/North African category on its Common App racial/ethnic survey options.


Biracial, multiracial, and mixed

The terms biracial and multiracial are acceptable, when clearly relevant, to describe people with more than one racial heritage, per AP Style. Avoid mixed-race, which can carry negative connotations, unless the subject prefers the term. Be sure to ask the individual/group how they prefer to be identified.

Be as specific as possible by describing a person’s heritages.

Note that multiracial can encompass people of any combination of races.


International students

The university is proud of its international students, who have chosen to travel great distances to receive their education at Iowa. Identifying a student as an international student should be done only when the designation is relevant to the content. If such identification is not relevant, the student should be identified in the same way as domestic students featured in content. Likewise, do not use an international student’s national origin or ethnic/racial identification if it is not relevant to the content.

Do not assume that all Asian students are international students, or to assume that all international students come from Asia.


Race and ethnicity: terms to avoid

No racial or ethnic slur should ever be included in content you create for any reason. You may consider an exception if your content is about this slur (as in a research study examining use of the word) or, possibly, if it is essential to your piece and is used in quotes. In this case, ensure that its use is absolutely necessary and that your source has approved the attribution of the slur(s) to them and that your supervisors and department have granted approval.

  • If explicit approval has been given to use a slur under this exception, add content warnings at the beginning of the piece and do not use these words in the title or headline; people from these communities should have the agency to decide whether they want to engage in harmful language before being forced to do so.

Do not use the term colored person/people. Use a broader term, like people of color, which refers to any person who is not white, especially in the U.S. BIPOC is an emerging acronym that stands for Black, indigenous, people of color. Some feel the term is more appropriate than people of color because it acknowledges the varying levels of injustice experienced by different groups. In these instances, be sure to ask the individual/group how they prefer to be identified. However, if you are talking about a specific racial or ethnic group, name that specific group rather than generalizing to all people of color. This is especially important when discussing Black people.

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