According to Andrea Rich “any language that, through a conscious or unconscious attempt by the user, places a particular racial or ethnic group in an inferior position is racist.” Racist language expresses racist attitudes. It also, however, contributes to the development of racist attitudes in those who use or hear the language. Even when racism is subtle, unintentional, or even unconscious, its effects are systematically damaging. Here is an all-too-brief consideration of some of the ways we might talk about race without offending others.
Like sexism, racism exists on both individual and institutional levels. Individual racism involves the negative attitudes and beliefs that people hold about specific races. The assumption that certain races are intellectually inferior to others or that certain races are incapable of certain achievements are clear examples of individual racism. Prejudice against groups such as American Indians, African Americans, Hispanics, and Arabs have been with us throughout history and is still a part of many people’s lives today. Such racism is seen in the negative terms people use to refer to members of other races and to disparage their customs and accomplishments. Institutionalized racism is seen in patterns such as de facto school segregation, companies’ reluctance to hire members of minority groups, banks’ unwillingness to extend mortgages and business loans to members of some races or to charge them higher interest rates, and racial profiling.
Examine your own language for possible racism which may include: using derogatory terms for members of a particular race; maintaining stereotypes and on the basis of these perceive and interact with members of other races; including reference to race when it’s irrelevant, as in “the racialname surgeon” or “the racialname athlete”; and attributing an individual’s economic or social problems to the individual’s race rather than to, say, institutionalized racism or general economic problems that affect everyone.
According to some research, most African Americans prefer African American to black, although black is often used with white, as well as in a variety of other contexts (for example, Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies, the Journal of Black History, and Black History Month). The American Psychological Association recommends that both terms be capitalized, but the Chicago Manual of Style (the manual used by most newspapers and publishing houses) recommends using lowercase. The terms Negro and colored, although used in the names of some organizations (for example, the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), are no longer used outside these contexts. People of color—a literary-sounding term appropriate perhaps to public speaking but awkward in most conversations—is preferred to nonwhite, which implies that whiteness is the norm and nonwhiteness is a deviation from that norm.
White is generally used to refer to those whose roots are in European cultures and usually does not include Hispanics. Analogous to African American (which itself is based on a long tradition of terms such as Irish American and Italian American) is the phrase European American. Few European Americans, however, call themselves that; most prefer their national origins emphasized, as in, for example, German American or Greek American.
Generally, the term Hispanic refers to anyone who identifies as belonging to a Spanish-speaking culture. Latina (female) and Latino (male) refer to persons whose roots are in one of the Latin American countries, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, or Guatemala. Hispanic American refers to U.S. residents whose ancestry is in a Spanish culture; the term includes people from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. In emphasizing a Spanish heritage, however, the term is really inaccurate, because it leaves out the large numbers of people in the Caribbean and in South America whose origins are African, Native American, French, or Portuguese. Chicana (female) and Chicano (male) refer to persons with roots in Mexico, although it often often connotes a nationalist attitude and is considered offensive by many Mexican Americans. Mexican American is generally preferred.
Inuk (plural Inuit), also spelled with two n’s (Innuk and Innuit), is preferred to Eskimo, which was applied to the indigenous peoples of Alaska and Canada by Europeans and literally means “raw
The word Indian technically refers only to someone from India, not to members of other Asian countries or to the indigenous peoples of North America. American Indian or Native American is preferred, even though many Native Americans do refer to themselves as Indians and Indian people. The word squaw, used to refer to a Native American woman and still used in the names of some places in the United States and in some textbooks, is clearly a term to be avoided; its usage is almost always negative and insulting.
In Canada indigenous people are called first people or first nations. The term native American (with lowercase n) is most often used to refer to persons born in the United States. Although technically the term could refer to anyone born in North or South America, people outside the United States generally prefer more specific designations such as Argentinean, Cuban, or Canadian. The term native describes an indigenous inhabitant; it is not used to indicate “someone having a less developed culture.”
Muslim (rather than the older Moslem) is the preferred form to refer to a person who adheres to the religious teachings of Islam. Quran (rather than Koran) is the preferred spelling for the scriptures of Islam. Jewish people is often preferred to Jews, and Jewess (a Jewish female) is considered derogatory. Finally, the term non-Christian is to be avoided: It implies that people who have other beliefs deviate from the norm.
When history was being written from a European perspective, Europe was taken as the focal point and the rest of the world was defined in terms of its location relative to that continent. Thus, Asia became the East or the Orient, and Asians became Orientals—a term that is today considered inappropriate or “Eurocentric.” Thus, people from Asia are Asians, just as people from Africa are Africans and people from Europe are Europeans.
There is much more than can be said here and I invite others to add their own thoughts.