Racial Slurs and Racially Charged Language

The Faculty of English is committed in its pursuit of academic excellence to equality of opportunity and to a proactive and inclusive approach to equality, which supports and encourages all under-represented groups, promotes an inclusive culture, and values diversity.

To achieve that, it is important that all Faculty members feel able to talk about constructions of race, racism, racial inequality and the impact of colonialisation in primary texts, secondary criticism and in the institutions within which we work. It is equally important that the language we choose to engage with those issues is reflective and shows sensitivity to the lived experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff within Cambridge. 

Even while quoting from a text, using offensive and highly charged terms (such as the n-word) can have a detrimental impact on the ability of BAME students to learn. It can create a hostile learning environment and reinforce stereotype threat by foregrounding negative perceptions about a group of people. 

To experience ‘stereotype threat’ is to feel that you are at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about your group through your anticipated performance. This can have a detrimental impact on that performance. (See Faculty guidance on stereotype threat for further information.)

For these reasons, lecturers and supervisors are strongly discouraged from reading out or displaying on presentation slides the n-word and other racial slurs when quoting from a text or discussing it and to carefully consider the educational and emotional impact the use of such language may have. While a case may be made for preserving a quotation in full on a handout for the sake of accuracy, thought should be given to how such quotations are introduced.

Some key terms currently in common use within race equality discourse are offered below to encourage reflection on the vocabulary we might use to talk about race. Language changes constantly and what was acceptable at one time, may become unacceptable. In choosing language to discuss race and racial inequality, be guided by whether the term is acceptable to members of the groups you are describing, rather than by the practice you are used to or your own personal preferences. 

This document draws from the Equality Challenge Unit’s guidance ‘on approaching terminology around race and ethnicity’ and the Universities of Scotland ‘Race Equality Toolkit’. For a fuller discussion of terms related to race see: 

The Universities of Scotland’s race equality toolkit and the Equality Challenge Unit’s guidance on approaching terminology around race and ethnicity.



This is a term that has undergone considerable change and development since the 1950s. As several different meanings are currently in use, it should be used with caution and understanding.

The North American Civil Rights Movement challenged the term’s earlier negative connotations and redefined it to refer to those peoples who suffered from and struggled against white racism, and whose cause was justice and equality. ‘Black’ replaced the derogatory terminology applied to African-Americans such as the n-word and gained positive connotations for its users. In Britain there has been an attempt to use this socio-political meaning to unite the victims of racism (whatever the specific gradation of their skin colour, or their geographical or ethnic origins) in opposition to its perpetuation and effects. 

In recent years ‘black’ has been used less often in this all-encompassing sense, being replaced by such terms as ‘black and Asian’, ‘black and ethnic minority’, ‘black/minority ethnic’. There has been a growing desire from visible minority ethnic peoples to self-define themselves, including being defined as members of groups distinguished by ethnicity, nationality or religion. 

However, the use of the word ‘black’ by bureaucrats and law makers to classify people has been challenged by some African communities in Britain as being particularly divisive and unhelpful. For instance, in the 2001 Census, some ethnic groups were categorised under ‘colour’, as in ‘Black African/Black Caribbean’ or ‘White British’, and other ethnic groups were categorised according to national origins such as ‘Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani’.


BME stands for Black and minority ethnic. BAME stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic.

Both these terms have their limitations, including:

  • They imply that BME/BAME individuals are a homogeneous group.
  • Both BME and BAME single out specific ethnic groups, this can be divisive and exclusionary.
  • They can be perceived as convenient labels that are placed on minority ethnic groups of people, rather than identities with which people have chosen to identify.
  • It is generally perceived that these terms refer only to non-white people, which does not consider white minority ethnic groups.


This term has in the past been used as an alternative to more derogatory names for visible minority ethnic people. The usage is now outdated and though it is still sometimes employed is considered offensive. It is sometimes mistakenly used instead of “people/person of colour”, which is not perceived as derogatory (see below).


Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably but it is useful to be clear about the difference. In 1983 the House of Lords defined an ethnic group as having the following features:

  • a long shared history of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups and the memory of which it keeps alive
  • a cultural tradition of its own including family and social manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance
  • a common, however distant, geographical origin
  • a common language and literature

Everyone has an ethnicity and ‘white British’ is an ethnic group. 


The state of being equal. In an education context, this concept might offer students equal access and rights but might not take into consideration the additional steps required in order to enable better equality of outcome. See also the term ‘Equity’.


Equity is the quality of being impartial or fair. For treatment to be fair, issues of diversity need to be taken into account so that the different needs and requirements of individuals are met. An equitable approach in education is one that identifies and takes account of difference in fairly distributing time and resources, and impartially assessing outcomes. In equitable terms educational achievement should be an inclusive rather than an exclusive goal.

Minority ethnic or ethnic minority?

‘Ethnic minority’ places the emphasis on ethnicity as the main issue. There can be a tendency in our media and language to see ‘ethnic’ as synonymous with not-white and so the term could be perceived as implying the issue is with people being not-white, or non-white people being the issue.

As a consequence the term tends to be reversed to refer to ‘minority ethnic groups’ to highlight the fact that everyone has an ethnicity and the issues being referred to relate to minority groups in a UK context and the discrimination and barriers that they face.

People of colour

The term ‘person of colour’ and its plural (abbreviation POC) originally gained popularity in the United States in the 1970s as a way of emphasising shared experiences of systemic racism based on skin colour. 

The term has been criticised, however, for obscuring differences in the experiences of racism between minority ethnic groups. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, grew out of the African-American community’s campaign against the violence and systemic racism specifically directed towards them as a minority ethnic group. The term ‘person of colour’ has also been critiqued when used euphemistically by white people to avoid talking about race and tackling racism.  


When ‘race’ is used as a term, it should be used with a consciousness that ‘race’ is a social construct, with specific historical roots. Genetic differences within ethnic groups are greater than between different ethnic groups. There is no biological basis for defining differences by race. 

‘‘Race’ is a social construct. Its changing manifestations reflect ideological attempts to legitimate domination in different social and historical contexts. Racism is therefore not about objective measurable physical and social characteristics, but about relationships of domination and subordination.’ R. Bhavnani, H.S. Mirza, V. Meetoo, ‘Tackling the roots of racism’ in The Policy Press(2005), p.15