10 Ethnic Terms
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:
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.”
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”).
An American of African descent; this term is generally lowercased but is capitalized by some groups and publications.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
Subscribe and Get a Free eBook: 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid
- The subscription is completely free, and we only send out one email per week, on Tuesdays
- Our emails are fun and educating and will help you improve your writing skills
- You can unsubscribe anytime you want and keep the e-book as a gift