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How do you refer to a minority student?

When talking about students from minority backgrounds, it’s important to use language that is respectful and inclusive. Certain terms can carry negative connotations or make assumptions, so choosing words carefully is key.

Use Specific Identities

When possible, refer to students’ specific racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. For example:

  • African American students
  • Latino students
  • Native American students
  • Asian American students

Being specific avoids generalizing or lumping groups together. It also affirms students’ distinct experiences and backgrounds.

Say “Students of Color”

“Students of color” is currently preferred over broader terms like “minorities.” It acknowledges that certain groups face marginalization without labeling them as secondary to a “majority.” However, don’t assume all non-white students identify this way.

Avoid Problematic Terms

Some common terms for minority students are now considered problematic or outdated:

  • “Non-white” defines students by what they are not.
  • “Minority” minimizes the importance of groups.
  • “At-risk” or “disadvantaged” imply deficiency.
  • “Inner-city” and “urban” as euphemisms can perpetuate stereotypes.
  • “Culturally deprived” disregards the value of diversity.

Using these kinds of labels, even with good intentions, can marginalize students. Be thoughtful and avoid language with negative undertones.

Use Inclusive Phrasing

Phrase references to minority students in inclusive, respectful ways. For example:

  • “Historically underserved populations…”
  • “Students from diverse backgrounds/communities…”
  • “Marginalized racial/ethnic groups…”
  • “English language learners…”

In general, emphasize assets not deficits when describing minority students. Avoid words with patronizing connotations.

Ask Students Directly

Ideally, learn how individual students self-identify and use those terms. Ask respectfully: “How do you identify racially and culturally?” Then honor those preferences. Also listen to any concerns about inappropriate language.

Consider Context

Acceptable terminology depends on context. More specific words like “Chicano” or “Hmong” are likely appropriate for within-group settings. Broader terms like “students of color” work better for general audiences.

Use Plural Nouns

Avoid singling out individuals. Use plural nouns when possible, for example “Black students” rather than “a Black student.” Group terms are typically more inclusive and less othering.

Be Concise

Strive for concise, accurate language. Phrases like “inner city youths with socioeconomic challenges” are verbose. “Low-income urban students” is more straightforward.

Focus on Abilities

Rather than just deficits, highlight minority students’ assets and strengths. Emphasize what their backgrounds and experiences add to the educational environment.

Keep Learning

Language evolves, so stay open-minded. Seek ongoing education from diverse voices. If called out on a problematic term, listen graciously. Making mistakes is part of the process.


Referring appropriately to minority student groups requires care and conscientious word choices. Do research on preferred identities. Use specific, student-centered language. Critically examine your own assumptions and biases. Uplift the value of diversity. With cultural sensitivity and respect at the forefront, you can have more meaningful dialogues about minority students’ experiences and needs.

Do Don’t
Students of color Minorities
Marginalized groups Disadvantaged/at-risk
Diverse backgrounds Culturally deprived
Historically underserved Non-white
English language learners Limited English proficient
Ask students’ preferences Make assumptions

This table summarizes appropriate and inappropriate phrases for referring to minority students.