10 Ethnic Terms

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The vocabulary of ethnicity identity is fraught with peril. It is unfortunate that humans must at times distinguish between various subgroups, but it’s best to keep up-to-date on which descriptions are considered valid or acceptable among those belonging to those populations. Here’s a guide:

1. African

A person of African descent. Some people so described use this term even if they are US residents because, due to their recent arrival in the United States, they do not identify with black, or African American, culture.

2. African American

An American of African descent. Most people answering this description have no problem with the term black, but some groups and publications prefer this term, and it’s useful, at least, as elegant variation. Unlike as with the case of people from Asia, African Americans are less likely to be identified by their specific country of origin, such as in “Kenyan American.”

3. Asian

A person of Asian descent.

4. Asian American

An American of Asian descent. More specific terms such as “Japanese American” are used when necessary; note, however, that immigrants from nations from which relatively few people come to America can also be identified by such a construction, even if the phrase is not common (such as “Pakistani American”).

5. Black

An American of African descent; this term is generally lowercased but is capitalized by some groups and publications.

6. Chicano

An American of Mexican descent. This is one of those terms best reserved for use by those it refers to. People of similar ethnic heritage from countries other than Mexico may share communities and philosophies with Chicanos, but they may prefer not to share the name. (The feminine form Chicana is used when referring specifically to women.)

7. Hispanic

A person of mixed Spanish or Portuguese and Indian heritage. Some people of this description oppose the term because it emphasizes the European element at the expense of other identities.

8. Indian

This term has two distinct meanings: a person descended from people who long ago immigrated to the Americas from Asia, or people of Indian descent (that is, from India). Many people in the first category so identified prefer this term to “Native American,” and some use “American Indian” only to distinguish themselves from people originating in India. (American Indians were originally misidentified as such by Christopher Columbus, who believed, in error, that he had reached India rather than the Western Hemisphere.)

9. Latino

A person of mixed Indian and Spanish or Portuguese descent. This term, although no more etymologically valid than “Hispanic,” is preferable among many such people. (The feminine form Latina is used when referring specifically to women.)

10. Native American

A person descended from people who long ago immigrated to the Americas from Asia. Many people adhering to this description prefer to be called simply Indians or to be identified by their tribal name. (Note that the terms indigenous and aboriginal are not strictly correct, because Indians did not evolve in the Western Hemisphere. Canadian Indians who call themselves the First Nations are more accurate.)

Of course, many other descriptors for ethnic groups exist, including many broadly considered derogatory and even offensive. However, some people belonging to ethnic groups so labeled use such terms among themselves to reclaim them and diminish their painful associations.

A final note: I use the term American (which need not be hyphenated to another proper name) to refer to US citizens, although Americans — meaning people who live in the Western Hemisphere — who do not reside in the United States outnumber those who do. This apparently arrogant appropriation of the term is objectionable to some people, but it is unrealistic to expect that it will be abandoned.

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21 thoughts on “10 Ethnic Terms”

  1. I have always been under the impression that “Hispanic” and “Latino” people originated from Middle- or South-America: people speaking a latin-based language. True that many people there can point at Spanish or Portuguese ancestors, but they are rather Americans than Europeans.

  2. Actually, there is one very good word for all of these. It’s called people. After all, does the color matter so much?

  3. While I have also heard that Native Americans prefer the term “Indian”, in a piece like this where you talk of both them and Indians from India, it is extremely useful to make a distinction (the section on Hispanics is confusing if you do not already know what the term refers to). In addition, as a person of Indian heritage, I very frequently find it confusing that Native Americans would prefer to be identified with a country completely unrelated to them. If at all possible, I believe it is most correct to refer to them by tribe.

  4. Do you have any guidance for using these terms as nouns vs. adjectives? “Black” as a noun, for instance, always strikes me a little uncomfortably, although I generally have no problem with it as an adjective. Maybe it’s just me and I’m overly sensitive.

    @Patricia; I agree with you in spirit, but as communicators we find ourselves time and time again in situations where we need to reference ethnicities. For example, my company (and a lot of others) target market to certain ethnicities. We also have an employee population that’s increasingly diverse, and I think ignoring that diversity, or just assuming everyone is going to blend together in a “melting pot”, is short sighted.

  5. @Patricia, turning a blind eye to racial issues is not enlightenment.

    I’ve always had a problem with ‘African American’ as a PC substitute for ‘Black’ because people rarely verify if it’s true. A coworker of mine was frequently called ‘African American’ and she had to keep explaining to people that she was not, she was British.

    Also, I personally think ‘Black’ SHOULD be capitalized, because it’s the nickname of a race, not the color. I never seen a Black person who was black, nor a White person who was white. Just various shades of brown and tan.

  6. Good article. I notice you pointed out that _____ American need not be hyphenated; I would add that some find the hyphenation offensive. See the wikipedia article below for further info:

  7. the latest research on the origins of native americans has established that only some of the nations originated in asia, primarily the innuit and related tribes. reamains dating back 50,000 years have been found. this predates the alaskan land bridge, and the indians themselves say that according to their folklore, they’ve always been in the western hemisphere.

    indians take extreme offense to the asian migration hypothesis because it is often used to legitimize western colonization, i.e. ‘since you migrated here from asia, you have no more claim to the land than we do.’ DNA finally supported their claims almost a decade ago, and the recent find of remains predating the land bridge should’ve closed the book on that hypothesis years ago.

  8. Using the term ‘American’ to mean the people of the ‘Western Hemisphere’ is just as bad as using it to mean those of North America. Usually taken to mean west of the prime meridian, it would normally include parts of Europe, Russia and all of South America as well as part of the USA.

  9. One often gets in trouble when trying to hang labels on people, and a writer should use extra caution. The definitions used in this post may be politically correct, but some are inaccurate. In fact, some of the definitions would offend some of my coworkers. For instance, the definition of Latino in this post is one of mixed Indian and Spanish descent. However, I know several Latinos who can trace their lineage directly back to Spain with no Indian intermarriage. I also have a friend who is an American but who was born in Egypt, which is in Africa. According to this post, she would be an African American. However, that moniker would offend her. Also, my Latino friends from South Texas inform me that “Chicano” is considered to be a derrogatory term, and its usage should be avoided. The bottom line here is that a writer should avoid offending his readers as much as possible in areas of culture and ethnicity, but no matter how careful you may be, you always take the chance that someone will take offense.

  10. I like the term African American if the point is to discuss a cultural issue, as in, “Kwanza is an African American holiday.” But there are times when skin color really is the issue, not nationality; a visitor from France who is NOT American may be stopped for “driving while black.”

    I was once advised in a training session to ask the people to whom I was speaking how they wished to be described. I was attending with two black people. One told me she preferred “black,” the other “African American.” Later I asked a Mexican woman what word she preferred; she gave me a sharp look and said with some heat, “American.”

    After that I stopped asking.

  11. Very informative. Coming from the Caribbean, I still can’t wrap my head around calling myself “African American.”

  12. You mention two terms that could refer to someone of South Asian descent (Pakistani American and Indian). It’s also important to note that, besides South Asian or South Asian American, there’s another term for people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal: Desi or Desi American. Both of these terms tend to be used within the South Asian communities more often than outside it, but they’re used informally quite a bit. Just an FYI…

  13. Cindy, I agree with you and sympathize. As an Asian American and a woman of ‘color’ I’ve been at both ends of this issue – what to be called and what to call others. I once had a Swiss immigrant colleague who was often mystified by jokes and references to cultural icons when people assumed she was an ‘American’ (and of course, they would ask me where I was from…to which I’d say Southern California with a puzzled expression).
    You and ApK are both absolutely right, dismissing this subject simply because it is difficult and uncomfortable does a disservice to all of us. Truth is, if these labels did not matter they would not exist – by definition, words in any given language have to matter since words that are no longer useful are dropped from the lexicon. I usually don’t wade into controversial topics willingly but I feel so strongly about this that I’ve written a short article about so-called colorblindness and the labels we use.
    The bottom line is it comes down to respect. People want to respect and be respected. Here’s a suggestion to thoughtful people like Cindy: if people seem offended when you politely attempt to clarify ‘race’ labels, just give them a BIG sincere smile and say you didn’t mean to give offense. Your attempt to show respect is nothing to be embarrassed about…in my humble opinion.

  14. Regarding to ethnicity identity, how could you describe me, and a dozen of million of German immigrant descendants living in Brazil like me? There are also millions of Polish, Dutch, Ukrainian, and so on… with similar characteristics.
    Of course we speak Portuguese, because we live in a country whose this language is official, but we are all fair, blond hair, colored eyes and very whitish – unfortunately we cannot change our genetics to “fit” into this “North American” ethnic typology.
    And also, of course, we are American, because we were born in a continent named “America”.
    On the other side – we are nothing to do with Spain, or even Portugal (only the language) or not even with Italy (where the term Latino comes – “Latium” is a region of Italy around Rome).
    Thank God, I’ve never been named “Latino” or “Hispanic” throughout the several times I visited the USA – it would annoy me greatly indeed.
    I prefer to be called Brazilian, period.

  15. An American of African descent. Most people answering this description have no problem with the term black, but some groups and publications prefer this term, and it’s useful, at least, as elegant variation.

    American’s are weird, in that they call themselves “African” or “Italian” or “Greek” or whatever when they’ve never even visited Africa/Italy/Greece/etc., let alone originated there. The use of “African American” to avoid “black” is particularly odd, since white people from Africa who emigrate to America are really “African American” but the term doesn’t apply to them. And doubly funny in that Americans have been known to apply it to non-Americans: there was a case a while back where a black British runner (I think it was Linford Christie), after winning a race, was interviewed by an American journalist who asked a question about his being “African American”. I once saw an interview with Irish actress Roma Downey in which she talked about telling someone in New York she was Irish. When the person replied “so am I”, she asked where he was from. “Queens”, he said…she didn’t much agree that he was Irish 🙂

    5. Black

    An American of African descent; this term is generally lowercased but is capitalized by some groups and publications.

    What about non-Americans?

    (Note that the terms indigenous and aboriginal are not strictly correct, because Indians did not evolve in the Western Hemisphere. Canadian Indians who call themselves the First Nations are more accurate.)

    In that case, those terms are useless: all humans originated in Africa, so there are no “indigenous” or “aboriginal” peoples outside of Africa. Usually they’re just used to mean “been there since before Europeans started exploring”, which applies perfectly well to American Indians.

  16. Mark, I’d love to see a related article on perfectly good English words which are to be avoided for fear of offending ethnic groups. Words such as burly, swarthy, niggardly, inscrutable, etc., have been relegated to the ‘no-no’ list by political correctness when the words themselves are blameless.

  17. It was my understanding that the term Indian also stemmed from Indigenous – the Indigenous people of Australia have also been referred to as Indian in earlier times. The fact that there is now a country called India is as relevant as the fact that there is a US state could Georgia (ie, King George) – a result of the terrific blending of the language that is English which bashes other languages up for the loose vocabulary in their pockets.
    I think the point is to refer to people how they want to be referred to – it means actually asking them. The group in question is the only group who gets to decide.
    Niggardly? i believe that Nigger was stemming from the colour of the skin? It became such an offensive word due to the way it was used and bastardised – I don’t think it can be salvaged and don’t think it is worth the effort to try. Also think of the long history of the Swastika and how it is now viewed for a parallel.

  18. I am half Colombian and half White, and as far as I know there is no Indian whatsoever mixed in there, whether Native American or from India.. yet I would still be referred to as Latina or Hispanic, although I would take offense to being called Hispanic, because then it just sounds like they are calling me Mexican when I am not Mexican at all. However, I do not feel that I am Hispanic or Latina at all, as both my parents were born in the USA, and so was I. I do not speak Spanish nor have I ever visited Colombia, and I would most preferred just to be called American.. which fits even if I was full Colombian, since Colombia is still in South America, though I mean American in the sense of being from the USA.

    I think you should be called by where you live or where you were born, whichever you identify with more, regardless of where your parents or ancestors are from. I would prefer to be called American because I was born in America and live in America. My Grandpa would also prefer to be called American, even though he was born in Colombia, he moved here to America (the USA), learned English, and became American.

  19. Cassandra: If you are not Indian of the American type, and you are “half white” then what is the “Colombian” half? What would Colombian possibly be that wasn’t either European (white) or Indian (indigenous South American)?

    To all: In the “official” sense as used by the US Government, Hispanic refers to those whose heritage is connected to a Spanish-speaking country. The criterion is entirely linguistic. Those from Brazil are specifically excluded as NOT being Hispanic because Brazil is Portuguese (Lusiphonic), not Spanish, speaking. Race doesn’t matter. A German-Argentine, a black Cuban, and an Andean Indian from Peru would all be classed as Hispanic. WHY this is of any interest to the US Govt is an entirely different and sordid matter.

  20. Thanks for the insights. Why limit the list to 10 entries? Why does “Caucasian” not make the list, is it not an ethnicity? And if not, what is it?

    When it comes to Native American, is this not multiple ethnicities? For example, Cherokee is distinct from Navaho.

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