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Five Racial Terms to Avoid

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Five Racial Terms to Avoid

Drinking fountain with word "colored" on it from the Henry Ford Museum.

Jason Tester/Flickr.com
Updated March 31, 2013

Ever wonder which term is the appropriate one to use when describing a member of an ethnic minority group? How do you know if you should refer to someone as “black,” “African American,” “Afro American” or something else entirely? Better yet, how should you proceed when members of the same ethnic group have different preferences for what they’d like to be called? Say you have three Mexican-American friends. One wants to be called “Latino,” the other wants to be called “Hispanic,” and another wants to be called “Chicano.” While some racial terms remain up for debate, others are considered outdated, derogatory or both and, thus, best not leave your mouth. Find out which racial names to avoid when describing people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Why “Oriental” Is a No-No

    What’s the problem with using the term “Oriental” to describe individuals of Asian descent? Common complaints about the term include that it should be reserved for objects, such as rugs, and not people, and that it’s antiquated—akin to using “Negro” to describe an African American. Howard University Law Professor Frank H. Wu made the comparison in a 2009 New York Times piece about the state of New York banning the use of “Oriental” on government forms and documents. Washington State passed a similar ban in 2002.

    “It’s associated with a time period when Asians had a subordinate status,” Professor Wu told the Times. He added that people link the term to old stereotypes of Asians and the era when the United States government passed exclusion acts to keep Asian people from entering the country. Given this, “For many Asian Americans, it’s not just this term: It’s about much more…It’s about your legitimacy to be here,” Wu said.

    In the same piece, historian Mae M. Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, explained that, while the term “Oriental” isn’t a slur, it’s never been widely used by people of Asian descent to describe themselves.

    “I think it’s fallen into disfavor because it’s what other people call us. It’s only the East if you’re from somewhere else,” Ngai said, referring to “Oriental’s” meaning—“Eastern.” “It’s a Eurocentric name for us, which is why it’s wrong. You should call people by what (they) call themselves, not how they are situated in relation to yourself.”

    Due to the history of the term and the era it evokes, it’s best to follow the leads of New York State and Washington State and delete the word “Oriental” from your lexicon when describing people. When in doubt, use the term Asian or Asian American. However, if you are privy to someone’s specific ethnic background, refer to them as Korean, Japanese American, Chinese Canadian and so forth.

    “Indian” Is Confusing and Problematic

    While the term “Oriental” is almost universally frowned upon by Asians, the same isn’t true of the term “Indian” when used to describe Native Americans. Award-winning writer Sherman Alexie, who is of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene ancestry, has no objection to the term, for example. “Just think of Native American as the formal version and Indian as the casual one,” he told a Sadie Magazine interviewer who asked the best term to use when referring to America’s indigenous peoples. Not only does Alexie approve of the term “Indian,” he also remarked that “the only person who’s going to judge you for saying ‘Indian’ is a non-Indian.”

    While many Native Americans do refer to each other as “Indians,” some object to the term because it is associated with explorer Christopher Columbus, who mistook the Caribbean islands for those of the Indian Ocean, which were known as the Indies. As a result of the error, people indigenous to the Americas overall were dubbed “Indians.” Also problematic is that many hold Columbus’ arrival into the New World responsible for initiating the subjugation and decimation of Native Americans, so they don’t want to be known by a term that he’s credited with popularizing.

    It’s worth noting, though, that the term “Indian” is far less controversial than the term “Oriental.” Not only haven’t states banned the term, there’s also a government agency known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not to mention the National Museum of the American Indian. On that note, the term “American Indian” is more acceptable than simply “Indian” because, in part, it is less confusing. When someone refers to “American Indians,” everyone knows the people in question don’t hail from Asia but from the Americas.

    If you’re concerned about the kind of reception you’ll receive by using the term “Indian,” consider saying “indigenous peoples,” “native peoples” or “First Nations” peoples instead. But the wisest thing to do is to refer to people by their specific ancestry. So, if you know a particular person is Choctaw, Navajo, Lumbee, etc., call him that rather than using umbrella terms such as “American Indian” or “Native American.”

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