The term ‘non-white’ is offensive and should not be used in the Toronto Star but what is an acceptable alternative?

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As a woman of colour who came to Canada from Jamaica some 40 years ago, Sandra Whiting is greatly offended whenever the Toronto Star labels any individual or group as “non-white.”

“Why are people of colour being called non-white?” the long-time Star reader has asked me several times in recent months, and again this week after the Star published an opinion article entitled “Non-white women missing from Toronto’s power corridors.”

That article, a powerful call to action for equality for women of all races and ethnicities, pointed out the “disturbing” power inequality of visible minority women in Toronto and argued convincingly of the need for more diverse women on boards and other “traditional lairs of power.”

While Whiting lauded the article’s overall position, she once again questioned the Star’s use of “non-white.”

“Black women, Asian women, brown women are not non-anything,” Whiting said. “Just as I am not a non-man, so should no person of colour be described as a non-anything. When am I as a black woman; an African Canadian woman; a Jamaican Canadian woman going to be a positive instead of a non?

“Can the Star work on eliminating this term from its newspaper?”

Two points here: First, though some editors and writers are seemingly not aware of this, “non-white” is a label that generally should not be used in the Star to describe groups or individuals. Second, it’s clear that even in Canada’s most diverse city, there is no real agreement about the ideal terminology the media or individuals should use when talking about race and ethnicity.

As I told Whiting when she raised this issue last fall, the Star’s style guide, the arbiter of language and usage here, is aligned with her view on the “non-white” label. It states: “The Star does not use the term non-white unless it’s in a quote important to a story.”

The guide adds: “The term ‘non-white’ is offensive because it divides the world into two groups: white and non-white. There are more than two races.”

The style dictum on this issue is sensitive and, for the most part, sensible. Still, in looking at the use of “non-white” in the Star in recent years, I found it used mainly in contexts that were largely unavoidable, such as reporting on reports that classify individuals and groups as “non-white.” Clearly this is an issue that extends well beyond the Toronto Star.

When Whiting first voiced her concerns with me, I informed her of the Star’s policy on “non-white” and told her I would explore the issue and its implications further in a future column.

Unfortunately, much to Whiting’s consternation, in the months since, references to “non-white” people have been published several more times in the Star, in some cases when it likely could have been avoided.

In looking into this, I learned there is a lack of overall understanding among the Star’s journalists of this style guideline. Both the newsroom’s senior editors and I need to take responsibility for not making certain that all understand Star policy on a matter of importance to the Star and its readers.

So, how should the Star write about the diversity of Toronto? How do we best talk about race and ethnicity in our community?

First, you need to know that the Star does not refer to any person’s race or ethnicity unless it is relevant to the story. When relevant, writers should aim to avoid blanket labels and be as specific as possible in identifying the race or ethnicity of individuals or groups.

To continue reading this column, please go to where it was originally published.