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APA Style (Seventh edition): Reduce Bias in Language

This guide will assist students in learning APA style and applying it when writing and formatting papers and other course assignments.

General Principles

It is essential to write and talk about all people in an inclusive and respectful way.  As writers and researchers, we must use language that is free of bias and avoid perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes.

APA General Principles for Reducing Bias

Guideline 1: Describe at the appropriate level of specificity

When you refer to a person or persons, choose words that are accurate, clear, and free from bias or prejudicial connotations. For example, using “man” to refer to all human beings is not as accurate or inclusive as using the terms “individuals,” “people,” or “persons.” (APA)

Guideline 2: Be sensitive to labels

Respect the language people use to describe themselves; that is, call people what they call themselves. You may need to ask which labels individuals use and/or consult self-advocacy groups if you are unsure. (APA)

Historical Context

The APA Publishers have provide guidance on managing Historical Context.

Writers and researchers should avoid perpetuating demeaning attitudes and biased assumptions. We must also be careful not to misrepresent another author's ideas.

If changes misrepresent the original author’s ideas, then:

  1. Retain the original language / word choice, and

  2. Make comment about the historical context in your writing or footnote.

Guidelines for Reducing Bias

Intersectionality is the way in which individuals are shaped by, and identify with cultural, structural, sociobiological, economic, and social contexts (APA). People are unique, and many identities are possible.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a 2017 NAIS People of Color Conference speaker, civil rights advocate, and professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, talks about intersectional theory, the study of how overlapping or intersecting social identities—and particularly minority identities—relate to systems and structures of discrimination.

National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). (2018, June 18). Kimberlé Crenshaw: What is intersectionality [Video]? https://youtu.be/ViDtnfQ9FHc

Teaching Tolerance: Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation's children. http://www.tolerance.org/

Learning for Justice. (2016, May 18). Intersectionality 101. https://youtu.be/w6dnj2IyYjE

Terms for Age Groups

For an individual of any age, use “person,” “individual."

In general, instead use “men” and “women” or other age- and gender-appropriate words.

Individual aged 12 years and younger

Use “infant”, “child,” “girl,” “boy,” “transgender girl,” “transgender boy,” “gender-fluid child.”

Individual aged 13 to 17 years

Use “adolescent,” “young person,” “youth,” “young woman,” “young man,” “female adolescent,” “male adolescent,” “agender adolescent."

Individual aged 18 years and older

Use “adult,” “woman,” “man,” “transgender man,” “trans man,” “transgender woman,” “trans woman,” “genderqueer adult,” “cisgender adult."

Terms for older adults

Use terms such as “older persons,” “older people,” “older adults,” “older patients,” “older individuals,” “persons 65 years and older,” and “the older population."

Always maintain the integrity (worth and dignity) of all individuals as human beings. Use terms and descriptions that both honor and explain person-first and identity-first perspectives. Language used should reflect the preference of people with disabilities. (APA)

Choosing between Person-first and Identity-first language

Always use the preferred language of the individual. If you are unsure, contact self-advocacy groups to clarify.  Generally, use the language they use to describe themselves.

Person-first language

In person-first language, the person is emphasized, not the individual’s disabling or chronic condition.

Example

“a person with paraplegia” and “a youth with epilepsy” rather than “a paraplegic” or “an epileptic.”

Identity-first language

In identity-first language, the disability becomes the focus. This allows the individual to claim the disability and choose their identity.

Example

“blind person,” “autistic person”

The language related to gender identity and sexual orientation has evolved rapidly. It is important to use the terms people use to describe themselves.

Gender versus sex

Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex (APA). Gender is a social construct and a social identity. Use the term “gender” when referring to people as social groups.

Example

 “Approximately 60% of participants identified as cisgender women, 35% as cisgender men, 3% as transgender women, 1% as transgender men, and 1% as nonbinary.”

Sex refers to biological sex assignment.

Gender identity

Gender identity is a component of gender that describes a person’s psychological sense of their gender. Many people describe gender identity as a deeply felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or a nonbinary gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, agender, gender-fluid) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth, presumed gender based on sex assignment, or primary or secondary sex characteristics. (APA)

Transgender and gender-nonconforming people

Transgender is used to refer to persons whose gender identity, expression, and/or role does not conform to what is culturally associated with their sex assigned at birth. Some transgender people hold a binary gender, such as man or woman, but others have a gender outside of this binary, such as gender-fluid or nonbinary. Individuals whose gender varies from presumptions based on their sex assigned at birth may use terms other than “transgender” to describe their gender, including “gender-nonconforming,” “genderqueer,” “gender-nonbinary,” “gender-creative,” “agender,” or “two-spirit,” to name a few. (APA)

"Two-spirit” is a term specific to Indigenous and Native American communities.

Gender and noun usage

Refer to all people, including transgender people, by the name they use to refer to themselves.

Avoid gendered endings such as “man” in occupational titles.

Example

Use “police officer” instead of “policeman”

Use a non-gendered term if possible.

Example

“homemaker” instead of “housewife”

Gender and pronoun usage

Always use a person’s identified pronouns. Some individuals use “they” as a singular pronoun; some use alternative pronouns such as “ze,” “xe,” “hir,” “per,” “ve,” “ey,” and “hen.”

Refer to a transgender person using language appropriate to the person’s gender.

When referring to individuals whose identified pronouns are not known, use the singular “they.”

Terms used to refer to racial and ethnic groups continue to change over time. Why?

  • Personal preference

  • Designations can become dated over time and may hold negative connotations

When describing racial and ethnic groups, be appropriately specific and sensitive to issues of labeling.

Race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant.

Example

People might identify their race as African Canadian or Black, Asian, European American or White, Native American, Indigenous or some other race. 

Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs.

Example

People might identify as Acadian or Latino or another ethnicity.

Race is a social construct that is not universal, so one must be careful not to impose racial labels on ethnic groups.

Example

Instead of categorizing participants as Asian Canadian, you could use more specific labels that identify their nation or region of origin, such as Japanese Canadian.

 

Spelling and capitalization of racial and ethnic terms

Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized.

  • Use “Black” and “White” instead of “black” and “white” (do not use colors to refer to other human groups; doing so is considered pejorative).

  • Capitalize “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” whenever they are used. Capitalize “Indigenous People” or “Aboriginal People” when referring to a specific group (e.g., the Indigenous Peoples of Canada), but use lowercase for “people” when describing persons who are Indigenous or Aboriginal (e.g., “the authors were all Indigenous people but belonged to different nations”).

  • Do not use hyphens in multiword names, even if the names act as unit modifiers (e.g., write “Asian Canadian participants,” not “Asian-Canadian participants”).

  • If people belong to multiple racial or ethnic groups, the names of the specific groups are capitalized, but the terms “multiracial,” “biracial,” “multi-ethnic,” and so on are lowercase

Terms for specific groups

People of African origin

When writing about people of African ancestry, several factors inform the appropriate terms to use. People of African descent have widely varied cultural backgrounds, family histories, and family experiences. Some will be from Caribbean islands, Latin America, various regions in the United States and Canada, countries in Africa, or elsewhere.

Some Canadian people of African ancestry prefer “Black,” and others prefer “African Canadian”; both terms are acceptable.

Indigenous Peoples around the world

When writing about Indigenous Peoples, use the names that they call themselves. In general, refer to an Indigenous group as a “people” or “nation” rather than as a “tribe.”

In Canada, refer to the Indigenous Peoples collectively as “Indigenous Peoples” or “Aboriginal Peoples.” Specify the nation or people if possible (e.g., People of the First Nations of Canada, People of the First Nations, or First Nations People; Métis; Inuit).

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation is a part of individual identity that includes “a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction." Use the term “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference,” “sexual identity,” or “sexual orientation identity.” (APA)

Sexual orientation can be conceptualized first by the degree to which a person feels sexual and emotional attraction:

  • A person who identifies as sexual feels sexual and emotional attraction toward some or all types of people.

  • A person who identifies as demisexual feels sexually attracted only within the context of a strong emotional connection with another person.

  • A person who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction or has little interest in sexual behavior. 

Second, sexual orientation can be conceptualized as having a direction. For people who identify as sexual or demisexual, their attraction then may be directed toward people who are similarly gendered, differently gendered, and so on. That is, sexual orientation indicates the gendered directionality of attraction, even if that directionality is very inclusive (e.g., nonbinary). Thus, a person might be attracted to men, women, both, neither, masculinity, femininity, and/or to people who have other gender identities such as genderqueer or androgynous, or a person may have an attraction that is not predicated on a perceived or known gender identity.

Terms for sexual orientation

Some examples of sexual orientation are lesbian, gay, heterosexual, straight, asexual, bisexual, queer, polysexual, and pansexual (also called multisexual and omnisexual). For example, a person who identifies as lesbian might describe herself as a woman (gender identity) who is attracted to women (sexual orientation). Someone who identifies as pansexual might describe their attraction to people as being inclusive of gender identity but not determined or delineated by gender identity. Note that these definitions are evolving and that self-identification is best when possible.

Abbreviations such as LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA, and LGBTQIA+ may also be used to refer to multiple groups. The form “LGBT” is considered outdated, but there is not consensus about which abbreviation including or beyond LGBTQ to use. Be specific about the groups to which you refer. When in doubt, use one of the umbrella terms rather than a potentially inaccurate abbreviation.

When using specific terms for orientations, define them if there is ambiguity. For example, the adjective “gay” can be interpreted broadly, to include all genders, or more narrowly, to include only men, so define “gay” when you use it in your paper, or use the phrase “gay men” to clarify the usage.

Inaccurate Terms

Avoid the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality.” Instead, use specific, identity-first terms to describe people’s sexual orientation (e.g., bisexual people, queer people). The term “homosexuality” has been and continues to be associated with negative stereotypes, pathology, and the reduction of people’s identities to their sexual behavior.

Homoprejudice, biprejudice, homonegativity, and so forth are terms used to denote prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes toward lesbians, gay men, bisexual individuals, or other sexual minorities. Heterosexism refers to the belief that heterosexuality is normative, as indicated in the assumption that individuals are heterosexual unless otherwise specified.

The terms “straight” and “heterosexual” are both acceptable to use when referring to people who are attracted to individuals of another gender.

Socioeconomic status (SES)

It encompasses not only income but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. SES encompasses quality of life attributes and opportunities afforded to people within society and is a consistent predictor of a vast array of psychological outcomes. (APA)

Reporting socioeconomic status (SES)

When reporting SES, provide as much detailed information as possible about people’s income, education, and occupations or employment circumstances. SES can be described by providing information related to specific contextual and environmental conditions.

Stereotyping terms

Avoid using broad, pejorative, and generalizing terms to discuss SES. Specifically, negative connotations are associated with terms such as “the homeless,” “inner-city,” “ghetto,” “the projects,” “poverty stricken,” and “welfare reliant.” Instead, use specific, person-first language. 

It is important to note that SES terms such as “low-income” and “poor” have historically served as implicit descriptors for racial and/or ethnic minority people.

Deficit-based language also focuses on what people lack rather than on what they possess. Instead, provide more sensitive and specific descriptors. Instead, adopt a strengths-based perspective.