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Australia’s population comprises people from different ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds, some of whom are indigenous to Australia. Language plays a major role in expressing group relations and conflicts. Ethnic and racial labels, names, and expressions in Australian English are often used to portray certain groups as inferior or superior to others.

The diversity of Australia’s population (the range of national and ethnic origins, languages, cultures and religions of Australians) should be respectfully acknowledged in the language we use at UTS. Non-discriminatory language in relation to race and ethnicity aims to recognise diversity and present it in inclusive and positive ways. See the guidelines for race and ethnicity terminology.

Major forms of racist language include:

Emphasis on ‘differences’
Stereotyping
derogatory labelling
Invisibility
Racist ‘jokes’
Defining Australian
Further Reading
Ethnic Affairs Priorities Statement (opens an external site)

Guidelines for race and ethnicity terminology

Ethnic, ethnic group
An ethnic group is an historically distinct people with specific characteristics, demonstrating a degree of institutional development along ethnic lines, and drawn together by their language and the pursuit of economic, political, social, cultural and/or religious interests. This difference, especially where the ethnic group is a minority, frequently results in discriminatory treatment.

Ethnicity is distinct from race, although it is often used popularly and mistakenly as a synonym for race. The word ‘ethnic’ is also often inaccurately equated with ‘foreign’ or ‘other,’ and in Australia is frequently applied only to non-Anglo-Celtic immigrants and immigrant groups. However, everybody has an ethnicity and belongs to an ethnic group. Use of the label ‘ethnics’ to describe immigrants or people from a non-English speaking background is inaccurate and often offensive, and should be avoided. For example, ‘He’s an ethnic.’ Alternative: ‘He’s of [specify] descent.’

Immigrant
A person involved in the process of immigration or someone who has recently arrived in Australia.

The term ‘immigrant’ is preferred to the vaguer term ‘migrant.’ If someone has been in Australia for a considerable period of time, it is preferable to avoid using ‘immigrant’ as a description. ‘Immigrant’ should not be used exclusively to refer to people of non-English speaking background. Immigrant Australians include millions of people from English-speaking countries, as well as people from other parts of the world whose bi- or multilingual capacities include English.

Race
Often treated erroneously as a synonym for ethnicity, race is notoriously hard to define and verify. This is because the categorisation of race is dependent on the meanings attached to physical characteristics (for instance, skin colour, facial features) that are not uniform, and whose sociocultural and scientific meanings change over time and in distinct cultural and political settings.

Race, and our notions of it, nonetheless affect some people more than others. For instance, Anglo-Celtic Australians rarely admit they have a race or experience discrimination for being ‘white.’ Categories of race are often means by which some people are identified, discriminated against, and even attacked on the basis of the ways in which their bodies are ‘read’ or ‘interpreted’ by other people. The popular meanings often attached to racial categories—for instance that there are distinct, unchanging racial groups—are further challenged when attempting to define people of mixed ancestry. Care should always be taken when speaking about race to avoid monolithic and unchanging uses of the concept.

Racism, Racisms
Racism refers to the way that some people are identified, named, labelled, interpreted, attacked and/or discriminated against by others on the basis of their physical characteristics and appearances. The term racisms indicates that racism takes many forms. Racisms affect all of us. Racisms can be perpetuated by majority, dominant or powerful social groups against a range of minorities. Racisms can also arise among those minorities as they react to perceived and actual pressures, attacks or discrimination. No forms of racism are acceptable.

Refugee
A refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion (UN Convention 1951, UN Protocol 1967). The term ‘refugee’ should not be applied indiscriminately to all immigrants. Many immigrants arrive in Australia in circumstances that do not involve fear of persecution in their country of origin.

As this definition indicates, the term refugee has a specific meaning, and should not be applied to all immigrants. Terms such as ‘refo,’ ‘boat-people,’ ‘queue jumper’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ should be avoided. Other terms that appear to be innocent, such as ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘detainee,’ are highly charged depending on context. Like many ‘hot’ words (e.g., terrorism, political correctness, people smuggler), they are often used and abused, mean different things to different people, are confusing, and are readily used as insults.

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Emphasis on ‘differences’

It is generally not appropriate to refer to the ethnic or racial background of a person or group unless there is a valid reason for doing so.

The language used to describe the majority group in Australia—people of Anglo-Celtic descent—establishes this group as the norm from which minority groups are perceived to differ. The majority group rarely if ever considers that they are ethnically, culturally or racially unique. Ethnic, cultural and racial differences tend to be attributed only to minority groups. For people in these groups, being perceived as ‘different’ can have adverse implications for a sense of national belonging and productive citizenship.

The ‘white’ racial or ethnic features of Australians of Anglo-Celtic descent are seldom mentioned, racial or ethnic feature of other groups are often emphasised to the exclusion of other, more relevant features or qualities. This occurs frequently in news headlines and reports. The following examples were taken from Australian newspapers: ‘Greek man kicked to death’, ‘Viets charged on tax fraud’, ‘Man of Middle Eastern appearance’, and ‘Asians snub the Australian mayor’.

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Stereotyping

The status of minority groups, in particular, is often adversely influenced by prevailing stereotypes about them, thus leading to the perpetuation of discriminatory practices and attitudes in society as a whole. Racial and ethnic stereotypes should be avoided because their inaccurate portrayal of individuals and groups are offensive.

Stereotypes based upon supposed racial, ethnic or national traits abound in Australian English, and are routine in the media and popular culture. They include such generalisations as ‘passionate French’, ‘excitable Italians’, ‘whingeing Poms’, ‘hot Latins’, and ‘black people are natural athletes’. Even seemingly positive stereotypes fail to recognise individual differences among members of an entire people, community or group.

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Derogatory labelling

Verbal conflict and aggression between majority and minority groups has given rise to a whole range of derogatory labels. Their main function is to set the targeted group apart from other groups by stressing their eccentricity, exoticism, undesirability, or alien characteristics. These include highly derogatory and offensive terms, such as ‘wog’, ‘wop’, ‘dago’, ‘chink’, ‘slope’, and ‘towel-head’, as well as terms that are not overtly derogatory, such as ‘New Australian’, and even ones that aim to be complimentary, such as ‘the passionate Spanish’.

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Invisibility

The diversity within racial and ethnic minorities is often unrecognised or unacknowledged. For example, the various Asian communities in Australia are often lumped together under the single term ‘Asian,’ despite their many differences and heterogeneity. Such broad and ultimately meaningless terms are best avoided. African, Latin American, American, and European are also broad categorisations for designating extraordinarily diverse peoples. It is also important to avoid using expressions that obscure the history, presence and achievements of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Also to be avoided are euphemisms that misrepresent the historical treatment of Aboriginal people or other minority racial and ethnic groups, e.g. ‘Australia was discovered in 1770’ or ‘Australia was first settled in 1788’. (See Indigenous issues).

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Racist ‘jokes’

Racist ‘jokes’ are ‘jokes’ where the punchline and humour depend on singling out a particular national, ethnic, racial or cultural group. They are offensive to many people and should be avoided.

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Defining Australian

The term ‘Australian’ should not be used in ways that exclude Indigenous or immigrant minorities. ‘Australian’ should be used to refer to any Australian citizen or permanent resident, irrespective of the person’s ethnic or racial background, country of birth, length of residency, or even dress, language, accent or appearance.

If it is necessary to specify the descent or ethnicity of a person or a group, or to distinguish between people born in Australia and elsewhere, the following strategies are recommended:

  • Use a qualifier in conjunction with the noun Australian, e.g. ‘Vietnamese-born Australian’, ‘Arabic-speaking Australian’, ‘Jewish Australians’, etc.
  • Avoid using hyphens between the qualifier and the noun Australian (e.g. Vietnamese-Australian, Aboriginal-Australian, Italian-Australian). The hyphen implies that the first part of the equation is somehow lesser than, or subservient to, the second.
  • Use phrases that refer to a person or group’s background or origin, e.g. ‘Australian of Irish background’, ‘Australians of Chilean descent’, ‘Indigenous Australians’, etc.

It should be noted that some Australians prefer not to be identified through origin or descent. This preference should be respected.

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Further Reading

Ethnic Affairs Priorities Statement (opens an external site)

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