Race and Ethnicity: Evolving Terminology

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Today, as attitudes toward different cultures and conceptions of race evolve, so too do the terms used to describe various population groups in Canada.

Knowing which terms to use and to whom they apply can often be challenging. Using appropriate language, however, is fundamental to ensuring respectful and positive relationships and to avoiding terms that may be discriminatory or offensive. When possible, the best course of action is to ask a person how they prefer to be identified.

Respondents to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census reported more than 250 ethnic origins, and over 40% of them reported more than one ethnic origin. In such a diverse population, it can be challenging to know how to identify individuals. This HillNote provides suggestions for navigating some of the complexities related to terminology on race and ethnicity, although it is important to note that the language surrounding this issue changes quickly and varies among countries. Terminology considerations specific to Indigenous peoples will not be discussed in this article, but the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has provided a lexicon of recommended terms.

Defining Race and Ethnicity

Although race and ethnicity often overlap, it is important to note the difference between the two terms.

As Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2019–2022 explains, “[r]ace is a ‘social construct.’ This means that society forms ideas of race based on geographic, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors, as well as physical traits.” Race, as a system of social classification, takes on meaning and subjects groups of people to different and unequal treatment. As an example, individuals of East and Southeast Asian descent in Canada saw an increase of over 300% in hate crimes in 2020, according to Statistics Canada. Even though the targets are not necessarily of Chinese descent or have ever been to China, people of Asian descent have increasingly been discriminated against worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission describes ethnicity as “[groups] sharing a distinctive cultural and historical tradition often associated with race, place of origin, ancestry or creed.” Ethnic groups often share a language, religion, practices and beliefs.

These definitions of race and ethnicity point to how these identifiers interact in ways that define the experiences of many people in Canada and across the globe.

The Debate over “Visible Minority”

The Employment Equity Act and Statistics Canada use the term “visible minority” to define “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” This definition is used throughout the federal public service and is a term generally used only in Canada.

The United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called on Canada three times (in 2007, 2012 and 2017) to reconsider using the term “visible minority.” The committee stated that the term’s “lack of precision may pose a barrier to effectively addressing the socio-economic gaps of different ethnic groups.”

The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues has also stated that Canada’s use of the term “has served to obscure and dilute the differences and distinct experiences of diverse minority groups.” The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has expressed similar concerns.

In July 2021, the Government of Canada announced the creation of a task force to review the Employment Equity Act. The terms of reference of the task force call for it to study whether the term “visible minority” should be replaced and whether the Act should reflect the different experiences of groups within that broader category, such as Black Canadians. A report is expected in early 2022.

Alternative Terms

There can be tensions around the meaning and application of terms used to describe groups that have faced oppression in the past and may continue to experience inequities. This is the case particularly with respect to terms that define these groups by comparing them to a “W/white”* norm or terms that ignore differences within a group.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has recommended that, where it is necessary to use a broad, general term, the terms “racialized person” or “racialized group” be used instead of expressions such as “racial minority,” “visible minority,” “person of colour” or “non-W/white.” The term “BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous and other people of colour), originated in the United States and was introduced to recognize the distinct experiences of Black and Indigenous people from other people of colour, but its use has been criticized [subscription required].

“Racialized” appears to be the preferred term currently because it is a reminder that race is a social construct imposed on people rather than an objective, scientifically recognized biological distinction. At the same time, some question the use of the term, arguing that everyone undergoes the process of racialization, including W/white people; however, in their case, it has been argued, the process is more invisible.

The preferred and accepted terms used may also vary among countries, depending on the makeup of the population. For example, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) is used in the United Kingdom. It is criticized by some commentators for reasons similar to those concerning the use of terms such as “visible minority” and “BIPOC,” which place heterogenous groups into one category.

Further Considerations

The variety of terms listed above illustrate the challenges in identifying the appropriate language to use and the ongoing debate about terminology. Terms change over time as their meanings are disputed, contested and reconstituted to reflect changing social attitudes. The Library of Parliament is following the debates around language and its evolution, and future updates of this HillNote will reflect those changes.

The following are some issues to consider when referring to race and ethnicity:

  • The race or ethnicity of a person should only be mentioned where it is relevant.
  • Because not everyone agrees about terminology, it is generally preferable to provide an opportunity for an individual to self-identify. When individuals object to a term, avoid using it.
  • When it is appropriate to refer to the race or ethnicity of a person or group, it is best to use the most specific term possible, focusing on national or ethnic origin, to avoid broad or inaccurate generalizations (for example, use “Indonesian” rather than “Asian,” or “Black” rather than “racialized”).
  • The term “visible minority” is established in Canadian law and, as such, is sometimes necessary in a legal or administrative context. In other instances, terms such as “racialized” may be more appropriate.
  • “Black” is now generally capitalized, although there is ongoing debate about whether to capitalize “W/white” or not.

*“W/white” is used in this HillNote because there is significant debate about whether to capitalize that term or not, and there does not appear to be a consensus.

Authors: Julia Nicol and Beverly Osazuwa , Library of Parliament



Categories: Social Affairs and Population

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1 reply

  1. Useful overview of the terms, issues and approaches.

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