What Racial Terms You Should Avoid

Some are debatable, while others are considered outdated or derogatory

Illustration depicting key questions to consider before using a racial term.

ThoughtCo./Hugo Lin

Ever wonder which term is appropriate when describing a member of an ethnic group? How do you know if you should refer to someone as black, African-American, Afro-American, or something else entirely? How should you proceed when members of an ethnic group have different preferences for what they’d like to be called? Among three Mexican-Americans, one might want to be called Latino, another Hispanic, and the third might prefer Chicano.

While some racial terms remain up for debate, others are considered outdated, derogatory, or both. Here are some suggestions for which racial names to avoid when describing people from ethnic backgrounds:

'Oriental'

Common complaints about using Oriental to describe individuals of Asian descent 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 that comparison in a 2009 New York Times piece about the state of New York banning Oriental on government forms and documents. Washington state had passed a similar ban in 2002.

“It’s associated with a time period when Asians had a subordinate status,” Wu told the Times. People link the term to old stereotypes of Asians and an era when the U.S. government passed exclusion acts to keep Asians from entering the country, he said. “For many Asian-Americans, it’s not just this term: It’s about much more…It’s about your legitimacy to be here.”

In the same article, historian Mae M. Ngai, author of "Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America," explained that while Oriental isn’t a slur, it’s never been widely used by Asians to describe themselves. Regarding the meaning of Oriental—Eastern—she said:

“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. 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.”

When in doubt, use the term Asian or Asian-American. However, if you know someone’s ethnicity, refer to them as Korean, Japanese-American, Chinese-Canadian, and so forth.

'Indian'

While Oriental is almost universally frowned upon by Asians, the same isn’t true of Indian 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. He told a Sadie Magazine interviewer: “Just think of Native American as the formal version and Indian as the casual one.” Not only does Alexie approve of 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 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, known as the Indies. Thus, people indigenous to the Americas were dubbed Indians. Many blame Columbus’ arrival in the New World for initiating the subjugation and slaughter of Native Americans, so they don’t appreciate a term he’s credited with popularizing.

However, no states have banned the term, and there is a government agency called the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There's also the National Museum of the American Indian.

American Indian is more acceptable than Indian in part because it's less confusing. When someone refers to American Indians, everyone knows the people in question don’t hail from Asia. But if you’re concerned about using Indian, consider saying “indigenous people,” “native people” or “First Nation” people instead. If you know a person's tribal background, consider using Choctaw, Navajo, Lumbee, etc., instead of an umbrella term.

'Spanish'

In some parts of the country, particularly the Midwest and the East Coast, it’s commonplace to refer to a person who speaks Spanish and has Latin American roots as Spanish. The term doesn’t carry much negative baggage, but it’s factually inaccurate. Also, like many similar terms, it lumps diverse groups of people under an umbrella category.

Spanish is quite specific: It refers to people from Spain. But over the years, the term has been used to refer to various peoples from Latin America whose lands the Spanish colonized and whose people they subjugated. Many people from Latin America have Spanish ancestry, but that’s only 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 “Spanish” erases large swaths of racial backgrounds, designating multicultural people as European. It makes as much sense to refer to all Spanish-speakers as Spanish as it does to refer to all English speakers as English.

'Colored'

When Barack Obama was elected president in 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.”

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,” raised eyebrows when she referred to African-Americans as “colored.” 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."

Colored never completely exited American society. One of the most prominent African-American advocacy groups uses the term in its name: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. There’s also the more modern (and appropriate) term “people of color.” Some people might think it’s OK to shorten that phrase to colored, but they’re mistaken.

Like Oriental, colored harks back to an era of exclusion, when Jim Crow laws were in full force and blacks used water fountains marked “colored.” In short, the term stirs up painful memories.

Today, African-American and black are the most acceptable terms to use for people of African descent. Some of them prefer black over African-American and vice versa. African-American is considered more formal, so if you’re in a professional setting, err on the side of caution and use that term. Of course, you can ask the people in question which term they prefer.

Some immigrants of African descent wish to be recognized by their homelands, as Haitian-American, Jamaican-American, Belizean, Trinidadian, or Ugandan. For the 2010 Census, there was a movement to ask black immigrants to write in their countries of origin rather than be known collectively as “African-American.”

'Mulatto'

Mulatto arguably has the ugliest roots of antiquated ethnic terms. Historically used to describe the child of a black person and a white person, the term originated from the Spanish word mulato, which came from the word mula, or mule, the offspring of a horse and a donkey—clearly an offensive and outdated term.

However, 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 Obama and rap star Drake, both of whom, like Williams, had white mothers and black fathers. Due to the word’s troublesome origins, it's best to refrain from using it in any situation, with one possible exception: a literary discussion of the trope “tragic mulatto myth” referring to interracial American marriages.

This myth characterizes mixed-race people as destined to live unfulfilling lives, fitting into neither black nor white society. Those who still buy into it or the period when the myth arose use the term tragic mulatto, but the word should never be used in casual conversation to describe a biracial person. Terms such as biracial, multiracial, multi-ethnic or mixed are usually deemed non-offensive, with mixed being the most colloquial.

Sometimes people use half-black or half-white to describe mixed-race people, but some biracial people believe these terms suggest that their heritage can be literally split down the middle like a pie chart, while they view their ancestry as completely fused. It's safer to ask people what they wish to be called or listen to what they call themselves.