Rose Ilunga recently graduated from King’s College London where she studied for a joint honours in Neuroscience and Psychology. In this blog, Rose discusses what she learnt while working on a race, ethnicity, and ancestry terminology guide during her time on the King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the summer of 2023.

Rose, undergraduate research fellowship student

This summer I undertook a research project with the Anti-Racism Working Group (ARWG), a group of staff and students set up to promote an anti-racist agenda within the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre. My task was to update the ARWG’s terminology guide so that it could be used by researchers from the SGDP Centre to help understand and select terms describing certain demographics or identities in their scientific writing.

The current issue

Researchers working on human data can often get so caught up in their findings that they underestimate the importance of the words they use to describe their participants’ identities. Language is integral to one’s identity; scientific writing needs to employ words that are accurate, clear, and as apolitical as possible. Despite this, I found that certain terms used in scientific papers today could be deemed inappropriate. Whether they are rooted in eugenics or hold pseudoscientific meanings, the usage of terms that perpetuate racist ideals in research is highly concerning. Terminology guides can help combat this issue by supporting researchers to understand the nuance, appropriateness/inappropriateness, and drawbacks of different racial, ancestral, and ethnic terms.

My task with the ARWG was to update a terminology guide designed specifically for researchers working on psychology and genetics research at the SGDP Centre. I started with a list of commonly used terms relating to race, ethnicity, and ancestry. From there, my process involved identifying research papers that explored the potential dangers of using these terms. I also traced the origins of each term to provide researchers with further insight into their meaning and looked at activist accounts and conversation forums to see if there was a consensus on what people thought about each term. From here, researchers could use this information to weigh the pros and cons of each term and decide which may be best to use in their scientific writing.

Personal findings

I found researching the origins of specific terms extremely insightful. As a Black woman, I found it particularly interesting to explore the damaging origins of terms that were/are commonly used to describe my demographic in scientific papers. Below, I have summarised a few of the most interesting insights and reflections from my time working on the guide.

White supremacy: I found that many terms were based on ideals of white supremacy. Therefore, researchers can inadvertently perpetuate these ideals by using these terms in scientific writing without adequate definitions or contextual information on their origin. For example, commonly used terms such as ‘white’ originated in the 17th century with undertones of purity and hinting that anything that strays away from ‘whiteness’ becomes increasingly impure. Though the use of this racial term has evolved to not be as damaging as it was in the 17th century, it provides an example of why it is important that researchers consider the background these terms were rooted in, and potential implications in scientific writing.

The Role of Pseudoscience: I found terms such as ‘Caucasian’ appeared to be highly pseudoscientific. Caucasian is an outdated classification that is often used synonymously with the term white. It came from an anthropologist named Blumenbach who, after a visit to The Caucasus mountains, described the people there as the ‘most beautiful’ (Johann Friedrich Blumenbach: Race and natural history, 1750-1850 2020). He coined the term Caucasian to define primarily Europeans with lighter skin. After its inception, the term was frequently used as a classification of biological race, a theory which has since been disproven. This term should not be used in scientific writing.

I identified other terms that must also be avoided in scientific write-ups. For example, the term ‘oriental’ which is both outdated and has been associated with racist campaigns.

Homogenisation: It was also interesting that there appeared to be an increasing rejection of terms that make groups of people appear uniform and similar (homogenisation). Scientific writing should be cautious when using such terms, as it may be easy to generalise conclusions for a specific subsection of society to entire groups and identities. Therefore, it was unsurprising to see a growing rejection of homogenising ‘umbrella’ terms such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic), and POC (People of Colour). Addressing the individual communities included under these terms rather than grouping them reduces potential ignorance and increases the representation of groups whose histories were often overlooked in research.

Instead of using these umbrella terms, in cases where you must refer to multiple identities, we should be aware that it is preferential to use terms such as ‘racialised’, ‘minoritized’, and ‘marginalised’. ‘Racialisation’ gives rise to racial inequalities in social structures. ‘Minoritized’ refers to racial and ethnic groups that are in the minority in the population. In the UK, this covers all ethnic groups that are not White British, including white minority groups such as Polish or Gypsy Roma and Irish Traveller communities.  ‘Marginalisation’ is a process that prevents individuals or groups from full participation in social, economic, and political life. This includes but is not limited to ethnic minorities, women and girls, people with mental and physical disabilities, and people who are LGBTQIA+. Use of these adjectives depends on the context in which they are being used. People may be racialised, minoritized or marginalised in some global settings but not others.


Though things may not change overnight and with each term still presenting its complexities, I believe this terminology guide is a necessary next step in addressing outdated and racist terms being used in research.


Note: check back in a few weeks for a link to the terminology guide!

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