Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people
An Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander person is someone who:

  • is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • identifies as an Aboriginal person or a Torres Strait Islander person,
  • is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives or has lived.

the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another. (Macquarie Dictionary 1991)

refers to the system of beliefs, assumptions, sentiments and perspectives…which members of a group have in common and (their) embodiment in customs, routines, roles and rituals. (Education Queensland 1998)

N.B. Researchers have cited over 160 definitions of culture. (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1998)

Cultural and or linguistic group
a group of people, racially or historically related, having a common and distinctive culture, often including a common language. (see also ‘ethnic group’)

Cultural (and linguistic) diversity 
a description of a society composed of people from many different cultural and linguistic groups.

Cultural identity
a person’s sense of self identity related to their notion of belonging to a particular cultural or ethnic group.

Direct (overt) racial discrimination
occurs when one person or group of people receive less favourable treatment than another person or group in the same position would have received on the grounds of their race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1995)

the identity of groups based on shared characteristics such as language, culture, history or geographic origin.

Ethnic community
in Australia, commonly applied to certain migrants (generally from language backgrounds other than English) and their Australian-born descendants who form a connected community.

Ethnic group
a group of people, racially or historically related, having a common and distinctive culture (Macquarie Dictionary 1991). In Australia, often used synonymously with ‘ethnic community’. (see also ‘cultural and linguistic group’)

Ethnic cleansing
the practice of forcibly removing (or even killing) a group of people from an area so that the people who remain all belong to the same group – so that, the area is ‘ethnically pure’.

the tendency to judge all other cultures by the norms and standards of one’s own culture. (Racism. Stop it! Action 2000, Canada 1999)

the planned extermination of a national or racial group (Macquarie Dictionary 1991)

the term used by the United Nations in its recognition of the special or unique rights of ‘first peoples’ or ‘first nations’.

Indigenous Australians
Indigenous Australians is the collective term used by the Commonwealth Government to refer to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people.

In this publication the term ‘Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people’ is generally used in preference to ‘Indigenous’, except where other texts, references or policy documents are quoted or referred to, in which case the language of the original text is retained.

Indirect (covert) racial discrimination
includes practices or policies that appear to be ‘neutral’ or ‘fair’ because they treat everyone in the same way but adversely affect a higher proportion of people of one racial, national or ethnic group. It can occur even when there is no intention to discriminate.(Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1995)

Individual racism
the expression of racist attitudes or behaviours by individuals.

Institutional (or systemic) racism
occurs when institutions such as governments, legal, medical and education systems and businesses, discriminate against certain groups of people based on race, colour, ethnicity or national origin. Often unintentional, such racism occurs when the apparently non-discriminatory actions of the dominant culture have the effect of excluding or marginalising minority cultures. (McConnochie et. al. 1989)

Minority group
used to describe any group of people which is disadvantaged, underprivileged, excluded, discriminated against or exploited. Sociologically, the concept does not refer to demographic numbers but to subordinate status in society. (Racism. Stop it! Action 2000, Canada 1999)

Australian multiculturalism is a term which recognises and celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It accepts and respects the right of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage within an overriding commitment to Australia and the basic structures and values of Australian democracy. It also refers to the strategies, policies and programs that are designed to:

  • make our administrative, social and economic infrastructure more responsive to the rights, obligations and needs of our culturally diverse population;
  • promote social harmony among the different cultural groups in our society;
  • optimise the benefits of our cultural diversity for all Australians.

(National Multicultural Advisory Council 1999)

People from English speaking backgrounds
A number of terms are commonly used to describe people who speak English as their first language and come from English speaking communities. These include ‘English speaking background’, ‘ESB’, ‘Anglo’, ‘Anglo-Celtic’, ‘Anglo-Australian’ and ‘British background’.

People from language backgrounds other than English
A number of different terms are used to describe people who are migrants or the descendants of migrants to Australia and who speak a language other than English as their first language. In this publication, the term ‘people from language backgrounds other than English’ is preferred to ‘non-English speaking background’ or ‘NESB’, except where quoting from or referring to other texts, references or policy documents or where the acronym is used for brevity.

The terms ‘migrant’, ‘overseas-born’, ‘ethnic communities’, ‘ethnic groups’, ‘diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds’ or ‘cultural (and linguistic) groups’ are used where appropriate for the context. In other cases, reference to the specific cultural or linguistic group may be appropriate, such as Vietnamese, Chinese-Australian or Arabic speaking.

a body of unfounded opinions or attitudes relating to an individual or group that represent them in an unfavourable light. (Racism. Stop it! Action 2000, Canada 1999)

The term ‘race’ is an artificial construct used to classify people on the basis of supposed physical and cultural similarities deriving from their common descent. The Runnymede Trust (1993) provides a useful discussion of the word ‘race’:

The words ‘race’ and ‘racial’ are much used in modern society – in everyday conversation, as also in legislation and in the media. Phrases such as ‘race relations’, ‘race row’, ‘racial equality’, ‘racial group’, ‘racial harmony’ and so on are in frequent use. However, they are not at all satisfactory. 

They are remnants of a belief formed in previous centuries, now discredited, that human beings can be hierarchically categorised into distinct ‘races’ or ‘racial groups’ on the basis of physical appearance, and that each so-called race or group has distinctive cultural, personal and intellectual capabilities.

Modern science has shown that the biological category of race is meaningless when applied to the human species. Biologically, the human species shares a common gene pool, and there is much more genetic variation within each so-called racial group than between them (p 57).

Despite having no biological basis, the idea of distinct races still exists as a social construct. In many societies it is a basis of social action, a foundation of government policy and often a justification for distinctive treatment of one group by another. Divisions in society continue to be made along perceived racial lines and associated disadvantages exist for those groups who are assumed to be physically or culturally different from the dominant cultural group. Although there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of human races, human beings tend to assume racial categories and to take them seriously. They do so for social, not biological, reasons.


  1. the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others
  2. offensive or aggressive behaviour to members of another race stemming from such a belief
  3. a policy or system of government and society based on it. (Macquarie Dictionary 1991)

an ideology that gives expression to myths about other racial and ethnic groups, that devalues and renders inferior those groups, that reflects and is perpetrated by deeply rooted historical, social, cultural and power inequalities in society. (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1998)

Racial harassment
behaviour that offends, humiliates or intimidates and that targets a person or group because of their race.

Racial hatred (or vilification)
a public act based on the race, colour, national or ethnic origin of a person or group of people which is likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate. It can include racist graffiti, speeches, posters or abuse in public. (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1996)

is about building a new relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the wider community, one that heals the pain of the past and ensures we all share fairly and equally in our national citizenship. (Commonwealth of Australia 1997)

a generalised set of traits and characteristics attributed to a specific ethnic, national, cultural or racial group which gives rise to false expectations that individual members of the group will conform to these traits.

hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture. (Collins Dictionary 1986)

Understanding racism – What is racism? : The importance of culture, language and identity : The extent of racism in Australian schools : References : Glossary