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Five Racial Terms to Avoid

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    "Spanish" Is Not the Catch-All Term for Spanish-Speaking Peoples

    Ever heard a person referred to as “Spanish” who isn’t from Spain but simply speaks Spanish and has Latin American roots? In some parts of the country, particularly cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast, it’s commonplace to refer to any such person as “Spanish.” Sure, the term doesn’t carry the baggage that terms such as “Oriental” or “Indian” do, but it’s factually inaccurate. Also, like the other terms covered, it lumps diverse groups of people together under an umbrella category.

    In actuality, the term “Spanish” is quite specific. It refers to people from Spain. But over the years, the term has been used interchangeably with the various peoples from Latin America that the Spanish conquered and colonized. Due to intermixing, many of the colonized peoples from Latin America do have Spanish ancestry, but that’s only a part of their racial makeup. Many also have indigenous ancestors and, due to the slave trade, African ancestry as well. That said, to call people from Panama, Ecuador, El Salvador, Cuba, etc., “Spanish” is to erase large swathes of their racial backgrounds. The term essentially designates people who are multicultural as one thing—European. In short, it makes about as much sense to refer to all Spanish-speakers as “Spanish” as it would to refer to all English speakers as “English.”

    "Colored" Is Outdated but Continues to Pop up Today

    Think only octogenarians use terms such as “colored” to describe African Americans? Think again. When Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, starlet Lindsay Lohan expressed her happiness about the event by remarking to the “Access Hollywood” TV show, “It’s an amazing feeling. It’s our first, you know, colored president.” And Lohan’s not the only young person in the public eye to use the term. Julie Stoffer, one of the houseguests featured on MTV’s “The Real World: New Orleans,” also raised eyebrows when she referred to African Americans as “colored.” Most recently, Jesse James' alleged mistress Michelle "Bombshell" McGee sought to defuse rumors that she's a white supremacist by remarking, "I make a horrible racist Nazi. I have too many colored friends."

    What’s to explain for these gaffes? For one thing, “colored” is a term that never completely exited American society. One of the most prominent advocacy groups for African Americans uses the term in its name—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. There’s also the popularity of the more modern (and appropriate) term “people of color.” Some people may think it’s okay to simply shorten that phrase to “colored,” but they’re mistaken. Like “Oriental,” “colored” harkens back to an era of exclusion, a time when Jim Crow was in full force, and blacks used water fountains marked “colored” and sat in the “colored” sections of busses, beaches and restaurants. In essence, the term stirs up painful memories.

    In modern society, the terms “African American” and “black” are the most acceptable to use when describing individuals of African descent. Still, some of these individuals may prefer “black” over “African American” and vice versa. “African American” is considered more formal than “black,” so if you’re in a professional setting, err on the side of caution and use the former. Of course, you can also ask the individuals in question which term they prefer.

    You may also encounter immigrants of African descent who wish to be recognized by their homelands. As a result, they prefer to be called Haitian-American, Jamaican-American, Belizean, Trinidadian, Ugandan or Ghanaian-American, rather than simply “black.” In fact, for the 2010 Census, there was a movement to have black immigrants write in their countries of origin rather than be known collectively as “African American.”

    "Mulatto" Is a Don’t

    Mulatto arguably has the ugliest roots of the antiquated terms on this list. Historically used to describe the child of a black person and a white person, the term reportedly originates from the Spanish word “mulato,” which, in turn, originates from the word “mula,” or mule—the offspring of a horse and a donkey. Clearly, this term is offensive, as it compares the union of human beings to that of animals.

    Although the word is outdated and offensive, people still use it from time to time. Some biracial people use the term to describe themselves and others, such as author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who used it to describe President Obama and rap star Drake, both of whom, like Williams, have white mothers and black fathers. While some biracial people don’t object to the term, others balk at its use. Due to the word’s troublesome origins, refrain from using this term in any situation, with one exception.

    When discussing opposition to interracial unions in early America, academics and cultural critics often refer to the “tragic mulatto myth.” This myth characterizes mixed-race people as destined to live unfulfilling lives in which they fit into neither black nor white society. When speaking about this myth, those who still buy into it, or the period when the myth arose, people may use the term “tragic mulatto.” But the term “mulatto” should never be used in casual conversation to describe a biracial person. Terms such as biracial, multiracial, multiethnic or mixed are usually deemed non-offensive, with “mixed” being the most colloquial word on the list.

    Sometimes people use the terms “half-black” or “half-white” to describe mixed-race individuals. But some biracial people take issue with this because they believe these terms suggest that their heritage can be literally split down the middle like a pie chart, when they view their ancestry as completely fused, unable to be separated into halves or quarters. Thus, as always, ask people what they wish to be called or listen to what they call themselves.

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