Sunday, 26 July 2009

Words for People

I have no idea why I thought of this today. Maybe I watch too much TV. But it's really a vocabulary question - and it's a good thing tere are so many native speakers of English out there - as well as a question of respect.

And before I continue, I must point out, and I can't point out this too much - I HAVE RESPECT FOR PEOPLE NO MATTER WHERE THEY COME FROM OR WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE.
It IS a vocabulary question.

Yes, it must be TV. All those autopsies. Ducky and Bones. And Dr. Sam. And Brass or Horatio, each of them with a whole team. Post mortem. Saying: Caucasian, male yadda yadda yadda....

My skin is pale compared to many on this planet, but to be honest, I have to do some googling to find out about Caucasus and the reasons for naming us the way they do. And now I read it's the name for all lighter-skinned Europoids, no matter what exactly the skin tone is. Right. I wouldn't use it in everyday conversation but okay.

Our society here is not as multicultural as in many other parts of the world, I guess. This is changing, but still. It's not like in the US, for example, represented so well in so many series, films and sitcoms.

We have never had racism here, simply because we have never had different races. Nationalism, maybe, to some extent. Years ago, a person of another race with significantly different features would therefore be somewhat exotic more than anything. Not that people would stare or anything. But couldn't go unnoticed either. It's different these days, with all this tourist and business connections.

Here is this picture from an old (1956) Slovenian movie "The Valley of Peace" where an American pilot takes care of two kids who run away from an orphanage. There is a cute scene in it when the little girl actually licks the guy's face, thinking he might be made of chocolate.

So somewhere in the States I would face another challenge, or better said, so many of them. I guess the police and all sorts of clerks must have some special training in order not to use a wrong expression. One that is not "politically correct".

To describe a chocolate-skinned person, I would never use the N-word, no doubt about that. But what about the other expressions - "coloured" sounds ridiculous and offensive as well. And out of date, I hope. What I hear most often these days is "African American". But that doesn't sound very realistic or nice, either. My question therefore is: Does "black" sound mean of insulting? I know it's really dark brown, and sometimes not even very dark, but I'm not white either and I consider myself white. Besides, I've never heard the expression "African European" which would make just as much sense. In some cases, I mean, when we're talking about the Nth generation. And also, I never hear "European American" - and some white people definitely got there later. They do, however sometime explain about their ancestors in this or that part of Europe. (It's TV I'm talking about, mind you).

Of course, then there are the Hispanic people - is that OK? I'm not saying that it is or that it isn't - I'm actually asking. And the people from all corners of Asia and so on and so on. It never ends.

And there is the race of planet Earth. All of us. My opinion is that it makes less and less sense to put people into categories, as we travel, move and mix. Around me, I find Slovenian, Italian, German, French last names, as well as those with origin somewhere in northern and southern Europe and god knows where else, having been around too long for people to remember how they got here. So what's the point?

My question, no matter how much I have just written about it, is quite simple, really:

When we, during an English lesson, describe people and the person we are describing happens to be of another race, what are the most appropriate words to say that?


  1. I tend to use Latino/a for hispanic cause I like it better. Racism here is so prevalent (but hopefully getting better). I think 'black' is the accepted term for, well, blacks (which covers many skin tones so I don't really know how a person gets classified as such) People of African descent who have more white blood than not can even be considered black. What a mess. And white of course for us of european descent even tho many of us are darker then blacks. And then what about the dark skinned people from India? What are they? I prefer one race...human.

  2. Yep! My thought exactly! But we do say things like white / blacxk. I'd just like to know what's ok.

  3. you know what, I would be really stuck if I had to explain that, constant worrying about what I should or shouldn't say leaves me in a knot!

  4. So it's not just us, non-native speakers... that makes me feel better, Mo! Thank you, too!

  5. That is a very good question, Minka, and one that I've been wondering myself, so I don't have good answers.

    I think there are certain rules for using Latino/a instead of Hispanic, but I'm not sure what it is. I'll have to remember to ask my friend from Mexico for his thoughts on the matter.

    Ellen's right: "black" is perfectly acceptable. Funny how black/white are commonly used and accepted, but yellow (for Asians) and red (for ??) tend to have more negative connotations.

    I sometimes have used "Canadian, of Indian descent", "American, of Asian descent", or "British, of African descent"...stuff like that. :)

  6. Thanks, TeresaR! I thought Hispanic was more acceptable than Latino. Well, maybe not.

  7. I think the words you use, at least in the U.S., depend on where you live. I know "Hispanic" was accepted across much of the country, but in places with large "Hispanic" populations, the word was "Latino." In recent years, "Latino" has become more accepted; it's what I use. Sometimes I use "African American," especially when I'm uncertain of my audience and want to be very formal; otherwise, I use "black." In fact, I often make my first usage "African American," as that shows my awareness, and thereafter I use "black," as that shows my lack of pretentiousness.

    Great questions.

  8. That was quite detailed, thanks, Jocelyn!

  9. In my area of Canada people are commonly referred to as Hispanic, African American, American Indian, East Indian and Asian. I don't recall having heard any other terms for people of any other decent around here, but I also live in a very governmental/religious community. The "slang" term Black is used frequently by people who like to be slightly crass, and the principal of Becca's school who happens to be from Africa referrs to himself as a Nigger. Yes I spelled it out and I said it, but that's just using the term that he uses to describe himself and his family, I don't use it and I find it strange that he does. His reasoning is that his family is from Nigeria and what's short for Nigeria? Well it's Nigger so he is one. Please don't blame me for his choice of words!

    Anyway, basically what I'm saying here is that the choice of term for different people totally depends on the area in which you live.People from Central America around here don't like to be referred to as Hispanic or Latino/a. They prefer to be called by the country they're from, Mexican, Honduran, etc. It's all very complicated and so much easier to just refer to people as people. Especially when it's more a personal preferance to be put in one category as opposed to another. Personally I hate lumping people into categories, as Russel Peters (a great Canadian Comedian) says, "It won't be long and we'll all be beige anyway, so why categorize?"

  10. Skye, I agree, of course I do! Why categorize? But sometimes you want to tell about someone and you mention the colour of hair and eyes an height and... you know and maybe the race. As a teacher, I feel the kids have to know what's appropriate and what isn't.
    Nigerian would still sound more apropriate than Nigger, I think he's playing a little word game. Besides, I do hear sometimes African Americans refferingto themselves as niggers, but that doesn't mean anyone else can saay that.

    Thanks for explaining this so well!

  11. I like to use "made of chocolate" ;)
    I haven't met a lot of black people but the ones I have didn't mind my chocolate way of thinking :) It was all friendly anyway :P

  12. I can actually imagine some people like that. :) I once talked to a black student studying in Ljubljana. In a nice friendly conversation, joking about things, I also asked him if black people ever blush and what that looks like... He laughed and said they get kind of a greyish shade.