Talking about race or ethnicity in English might feel a lot like wading through a minefield. And the danger of speaking insensitively is only magnified when talking about groups you don't belong to, especially when English isn't your first language. We all hear labels thrown about in media, music, and film. Then we see these very sources quibble over word choice.
This is probably why I've been asked so often about the "correct" English terms to use when labeling groups and individuals according to race, origin, or culture. This is not a simple topic, but let's try to keep the answers simple.
If you're going to talk about cultural groups or the individuals within them, you must understand the preferences of those communities and their members. This is about as close to correct as anyone can hope to get.
Sadly, racial slurs outnumber acceptable descriptors. I will not list them here. Instead, I'll try to offer a very basic starting point for those looking for guidance in referring to race and ethnicity in English, but recommend that you always seek to understand what specific people prefer and never stop educating yourself.
However inaccurate these descriptors are, Black and White are commonly used and acceptable. Pointing to other groups using skin color is purely pejorative.
SAY: Black or African American
The results from a number of twenty-first century polls tell us that around 60% of Black Americans don't mind either term, and that around 40% have a preference for one over the other. Don't be scared to ask what people prefer.
DON'T SAY: Colored, Negro, Afro-American
Yes, some of these terms are present in proper nouns like the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), are still used in other nations, or are recorded in the speech of important Civil Rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. But their connotations are now strongly connected to an ugly history of segregation and systemic racism and are now considered derogatory.
DON'T SAY: The N-Word
Though the n-word features in rap and film and is maybe even used by some of your Black friends, it is never okay for you to use it unless you are a member of the specific subcultural groups who endorse it. Otherwise, this is firmly in racial slur territory.
SAY: Asian or Asian American
But better yet: be specific. Asia refers to a vast region of the world. Talking about someone from Vietnam or of Vietnamese ancestry? Then Vietnamese or Vietnamese American may suit your purposes better.
DON'T SAY: Oriental
These days, Oriental is considered archaic and is reminiscent of European colonialism the same way that colored is reminiscent of the horrors of Jim Crow. Are there Americans of Asian ancestry who don't mind one or the other? Sure. But since Asian is not considered offensive in modern conversation, it's the safer bet. I'm half-Filipino, and I definitely prefer Asian.
SAY: American Indians
As with any label for any group, there is no universally preferred term, but American Indians has been cited as being preferred by a majority of the indigenous population across the United States. Native Americans is very commonly used, especially in literature, but is viewed negatively by some for socio-historical reasons.
DON'T SAY: Eskimo
Unless, of course, you're talking about Eskimos. The Eskimo people are only one of the many groups indigenous to Alaska. Use Native Alaskans. Similarly, indigenous people native to Hawaii are generally referred to as Native Hawaiians.
DON'T SAY: Indian for indigenous people
Many American Indians refer to themselves as Indian within their communities, but this can be frowned upon when used by outsiders. In formal writing, Indian is reserved for people from India and their descendants.
People of color
This rather nonspecific descriptor can refer to anyone who is not of White European descent, and while some people readily self-identify as such (as I do), others would only identify with the preferred label of their own race, ethnicity, or origin. Non-white is antiquated and viewed as suggesting that White is "normal." Racial or ethnic minority are often used, though regularly criticised for the same reason.
Latinx or Hispanic?
These point not to race but ethnicity. Both terms are frequently used, but preferences vary with region and heritage. But as always, be specific when possible. People who originate from Colombia are Colombian. People from Puerto Rico are Puerto Rican. My mother says she's Hispanic, but after years of living in Central America, I say I'm Latina. (And don't even get me started on the question of who can say they're American.)
What's wrong with Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, North African, Israeli, Jewish, and Jew?
Nothing. Unless you're completely wrong. These terms can sweep together a whole region of diverse cultures across multiple nations with practitioners of different religions — often inaccurately.
Be as specific as you can. Some Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent identify as Arab or Arab American, but not all. Also Jewish isn't synonymous with Israeli. A Jew is a Jewish person, but never use this as a descriptor, as in: a Jew accountant. Some people from the Middle East practice Islam, some don't, so Muslim fails miserably as a reference to people from these countries.
Know the difference between terms that point to ethnicity, region, and religion, and be careful to avoid overgeneralization.
*Cultural tidbit: It's (overly) common for Americans to play off of the Wizard of Oz when referring to scary things, like using words you don't know how to use!
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