Why You Should Avoid These Five Racial Terms

"Oriental" and "colored" make this list

Oriental sign
Oriental is a term that's considered offensive. Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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 While some racial terms remain up for debate, others are considered outdated, derogatory or both. 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.

    “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.”

    "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 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.

    To call people from Panama, Ecuador, El Salvador, Cuba and so on as “Spanish” is to erase large swathes of their racial backgrounds.

    The term essentially designates people who are multicultural as one thing—European. It makes about as much sense to refer to all Spanish-speakers as “Spanish” as it does 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, actress Lindsay Lohan expressed her happiness about the event by remarking to “Access Hollywood,” “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 house guests featured on MTV’s “The Real World: New Orleans,” also raised eyebrows when she referred to African Americans as “colored.” More 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 short, the term stirs up painful memories.

      Today, 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. So, as always, ask people what they wish to be called or listen to what they call themselves.