Black Peoples, Indigenous Peoples, People(s) of Colour (BIPOC): Inclusive and antiracist writing


The terms People(s) of Colour (POC) and Black Peoples, Indigenous Peoples, and People(s) of Colour (BIPOC) have become popular in activist and academic writing. These terms allow for collective activism and recognition that, while differences clearly exist, living in a culture of white supremacy impacts all folx of colour.

However, some writers reject the term People(s) of Colour and the acronym BIPOC (and its variations, see Glossary for more), because they conflate issues across all people who are not white. As a result, these terms and acronyms can  be used to erase important differences in the historical and contemporary experiences of the peoples identified with that label, including Black and Indigenous peoples. Recalling that specificity is a core principle of inclusive writing, it is preferable to write specifically and directly about the experiences of particular people or groups of people, rather than trying to generalize across a wide swath of experiences. One recommendation when you do need to generalize is to use the term "racialized people(s)," rather than using the acroynm BIPOC. One of the benefits of the term "racialized" is that it recognizes that race is not an inherent quality of an individual, but rather a complex socio-cultural process. 

The Podcast Code Switch has an interesting episode discussing the complexities of using initialism (such as POC and BIPOC) to refer to peoples and experiences. This episode is titled Is It Time to Say R.I.P. to 'POC'? and it is 38 minutes long. 

Steps for inclusive writing about Peoples of Colour, and/or Black Peoples, and/or Indigenous Peoples  

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Black Peoples, Indigenous Peoples, and People(s) of Colour have historically been misrepresented in and harmed by written texts in overlapping and unique ways. Writers need to work hard to learn about language, terminology, and relevant style conventions. This step is especially important for white writers (writers who are not Black, Indigenous, or People of Colour), who may unintentionally make assumptions or use language in ways that perpetuate harm.

Check your verb tense

Non-Indigenous writers sometimes write about Indigenous peoples using the past tense, which suggests that Indigenous peoples belong in/to the past. This way of writing also suggests that Indigenous peoples have been conquered or assimilated and are not connected to living cultures in the present. For more on this aspect of inclusive writing, see Elements of Indigenous Style (2018) written by Dr. Gregory Younging, a member of the Opsakwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba.

Be specific

Indigenous,” “Native,” “Aboriginal,” and “First Nations”[1] are collective terms and can be used to refer to Indigenous peoples broadly. However, writing about a specific Indigenous Person or Nation should use the name of that specific Nation.[2]

Non-specific or pan-Indigenous writing implies, even if unintentionally, that all Indigenous Nations and even all Indigenous Peoples are the same as each other. It erases important cultural, linguistic, and other differences.

Many Indigenous Nations are reclaiming their names for themselves/their Nations. For example, the name for the Cree Nation, in Nehiyawewin (the Cree language), is Nehiyawak and an individual person is Nehiyaw.

Some writers will include information about an Indigenous author’s Nation when referencing their work. This practice is a way of acknowledging that an author’s Indigenous Knowledge is a relevant part of their expertise. For two examples, see the references to Dr. Gregory Younging’s work above and below.

Choose words with care

Non-Black writers sometimes use the term African American to refer to any Black person living in North America (or Turtle Island, see glossary for description). This use of language erases individual identities and differences and may also impose two cultural identities (African and American) on a person. Many Black people living in North America would not choose to self-identify as either African or American and may trace their cultural identity to other places in the world.

Many other terms exist that are both outdated and racist and should not be used. For example, the term Oriental was once commonly used to describe Asian peoples, but it is now widely recognized as racist.

Antiracist writing is also writing that reflects deep thought about metaphors. It is fairly common for some writers to associate the colour white with "purity," "cleansing," and benevolence or generally being "good." The colour black is, in turn, associated with "impurity," "dirtiness," or generally being "bad." Think, for instance, of "white magic" and "black magic." When colours are evoked as metaphors in this way they can reflect unexamined white supremacy and anti-Black racism. 

So, let's think twice about our metaphors. We are more creative than that, anyhow. 

Choose capital letters with care, too!

Many writers capitalize the word Black when writing about Black people. Some of those writers will also capitalize the word White when writing about White people. However, some will capitalize only the word Black. This is done on purpose! It is because when you write about white people, you are referencing a skin colour. Colours are not usually capitalized in writing. When you are writing about Black people, you are not just referencing a colour. You are also referencing a shared cultural identity. Black folx have shared experiences, even when they also have distinct cultural, social, economic, religious, etc. backgrounds. 

Style guides have different rules about capitalization. APA prefers capital letters and CMA prefers lower case. When being graded on conformity to a specific style guide, consult that guide’s standards for capitalization. As writers we can, of course, choose to challenge the style guide. If we do, we should include a note (either in text or in a footnote) explaining why, so that readers don’t think we simply did know the guidelines.

In Elements of Indigenous Style (2018), Younging (Nehiyaw) explains that we should capitalize: “terms for Indigenous identities; Indigenous governmental, social, spiritual, and religious institutions; and Indigenous collective rights should be capitalized” (p. 102).

Think about pluralization

Many writers choose to pluralize terms (for example peoples in “Indigenous Peoples” above) as a way of signaling both the diversity represented by the term. The term Peoples correctly identifies that there are many Indigenous Nations and Peoples in the world and they do not share a singular identity or culture.

Write the metanarrative

Metanarrative means “the narrative about the narrative.” Writing the metanarrative gives us a way to explain how we have decided on the terms we are using and why they are respectful and appropriate in this case.  

Cite appropriately

Teachings from Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers should be cited both in text and in your references list. Guidelines have been created by NorQuest College Library, and can be found linked on the SFU Library website, Citations and Style Guide page.

If you want to approach an Elder or Knowledge Keeper for teachings, you will need to follow the appropriate protocol. If you do not know what the protocol is, ask before proceeding. You can ask the Elder or Knowledge Keeper themselves or another person from the same Nation. Note: protocols are culturally specific!

Additional resources

For more resources and examples:


[1] Many Indigenous Peoples prefer the term Indigenous to other terms like Indian, Aboriginal, or Native; however, the terms Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are all currently used in Canadian law.

[2] Using terms like People(s) of Colour can also be a way of being unspecific, especially when writing about an individual, a particular culture or Nation.

SLC Inclusive and Antiracist Writing Guides © 2019 by Julia Lane is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0