Grammar Cultural Identity |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Cultural Identity

The last couple of years have seen a greater emphasis on how we refer to and write about cultural identity in a wonderfully diverse country such as the U.S. In this discussion, we’ll share some current style guidance you can consider.

When we seek reinforcement for certain style items at, we most often refer to The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. For questions of cultural identity, we lean even more toward AP’s lead, as their style applies to daily communications such as newspapers, magazines, and social media.

Concerning writing about identity, we also agree with AP’s observation this year that:

“reporting and writing about issues involving race calls for thoughtful consideration, precise language, and discussions with others of diverse backgrounds whenever possible about how to frame coverage or what language is most appropriate, accurate and fair.

“Avoid broad generalizations and labels; race and ethnicity are one part of a person’s identity. Identifying people by race and reporting on actions that have to do with race often go beyond simple style questions, challenging journalists to think broadly about racial issues before having to make decisions on specific situations and stories.

“In all coverage … strive to accurately represent the world, or a particular community, and its diversity through the people you quote and depict in all formats. Omissions and lack of inclusion can render people invisible. Be aware that some words and phrases that seem innocuous to one group can carry negative connotations. … As with all news coverage, be sensitive to your varied audiences and their different perceptions of language and the larger world.”

With that in mind, here is how AP currently treats references to cultural identity:

American Indians, Native Americans When referring to two or more people of different tribal affiliations in the U.S., both can be acceptable terms (no hyphen). For individuals, use the name of the tribe; if that information is not immediately available, try to obtain it. He is a Navajo commissioner. She is a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. Avoid words such as wampum, warpath, powwow, teepee, brave, and squaw.

In Alaska, the Indigenous groups are collectively known as Alaska Natives.

Asian American This term (no hyphen) is acceptable for an American of Asian descent. When possible, refer to a person’s country of origin or follow the person’s preference: e.g., Filipino American or Indian American.

Black Treat it as a proper adjective and not as a proper singular noun in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense: Black artists, Black universities. AP’s reasoning is that language in the U.S. has evolved to recognize Black as a descriptor that reflects a shared culture and identity as opposed to a skin color alone, and capitalized proper treatment conveys that distinction.

African American (no hyphen) is also acceptable within the U.S. Note that Black and African American are not always interchangeable. For example, Americans of Caribbean heritage may refer to themselves as Caribbean American.

The Chicago Manual of Style entry 8.38 adds that “Black is increasingly capitalized when referring to racial or ethnic identity. As a matter of editorial consistency, similar terms such as White may also be capitalized when used in this sense. Usage varies according to context, however, and individual preferences should be respected.”

brown Because interpretations of what the descriptive adjective includes vary widely, avoid using it in racial, ethnic, or cultural references unless as part of a direct quotation.

Chicano Some Mexican Americans in the U.S. Southwest may use this term to describe their heritage. We should refer to it in formal writing only if it is a person’s preference.

Hispanic This proper adjective might describe a person from—or whose ancestors were from—a Spanish-speaking land or culture. In writing, usage should follow the person’s preference, and we should aim for a more-specific identification when possible: Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican American.

Indian This proper adjective is used to describe the peoples and cultures of the South Asian nation of India. We would not use the term as a shortening of American Indian.

Latino, Latina This is often the preferred noun or adjective for a person from, or whose ancestors were from, a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America. As with Hispanics, we should use a more-specific identification when possible (e.g., Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican American).

Orient, Oriental We would not use these terms when referring to East Asian nations and their peoples. Asian is acceptable for an inhabitant of those regions.

white Extensive research and dialogue conducted both globally and domestically by The Associated Press revealed a prevailing preference to use white (lowercase) as an adjectival cultural identifier. It would not be used as a proper singular noun.

At present AP does not use Caucasian as a synonym for white, unless it is in a direct quotation.

Concerning AP’s stance on white, at we typically favor consistency whenever possible (e.g., Black and White women, black and white women), but we do understand and acknowledge the preference of some to identify different cultural identities even more distinctly.

If a reference to cultural identity is ever in doubt or unclear, we would suggest consulting a stylebook such as AP or CMOS and choosing the style that best suits your audience.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

9 responses to “Cultural Identity”

  1. Patricia says:

    This can be a tricky subject to handle as there are many descriptions/references that can be used for different people.
    It is always best to get clarification from individuals as to how they want to be referred.
    Thank you for the clarification.
    I’m sure that cultural identity will continue to evolve, so language must too.

  2. Meg C says:

    I could be wrong about this, I thought that it was no longer preferred to use “Indian” or “tribe,” but rather to use “Native American” and “nation” when describing a particular group of indigenous American peoples. Thank you for this helpful article, though!

    • says:

      Concerning these references, we acknowledge the current effort and research that the Associated Press has devoted to them. Their most current guidelines suggest that “American Indians” and “tribe” can both still be acceptable. However, the prevailing objective for all of us should be to communicate in language that shows respect for the message recipient or recipients, as well as their preference if they identify one. If we suspect or feel concern that “tribe” or “American Indians” may not land well in a certain communication, we should include alternate wording.

  3. JoAnn says:

    Thank you for publishing this important information. For APA users, the 7th Edition contains an excellent section on Bias-Free Language Guidelines.

  4. Norma Caquatto says:

    Thank you for your comments on this topic. I have an observation about your use of a different descriptor you used in the article, “more-specific.” Because “more” is used as an adverb modifying the adjective “specific,” I would not hyphenate the two words used together.

    • says:

      The word “more” can function as either an adjective or an adverb. As an adjective, it conveys “in greater quantity, amount, measure, degree, or number”: I need more gas in my car. As an adverb, it communicates “to a greater extent or degree”: Please speak more slowly. Both uses in the article (more-specific) involve further adjectival modification of information. Punctuating the compound modifier also clarifies for the reader whether we mean “additional specific information” or “information that is more specific.”

  5. Steve Pomper says:

    I have relied on GrammarBook for many years, so I was disappointed to see GB sanction the use of “Black” capitalized as a valid cultural descriptor, especially if not treating “white” with the same deference. Although, you do point out that consistency is still important when using, for example, Black man and White woman or white woman and black man. Still, I’d argue, culturally, black Americans have more in common with white Americans than they do with black Africans. Additionally, black people on the African continent, in the various nations, are as different from each other as white people are in their countries on the continent of Europe (and by extension, different from black and white Americans). I’m just not seeing the consistency or legitimacy that merits any special grammatical concession here. It seems like just plain old politics.

  6. Judith says:

    I agree with Steve.

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