What "ethnic/racial" descriptors are acceptable?

Say I’m sending someone to meet you, and want to tell you what they look like so you can identify them. Assume I do not know what they will be wearing. I’ll probably describe them as appearing male/female, tall/average/short, thin/average/heavy. And I’ll probably describe hair color/length, and whether they will likely be wearing glasses.

Let’s say we are in the US, and the person I am sending is ethnically from Japan/India/Iran/Turkey/Mexico/etc. What - if any - race/ethnic descriptors do you feel are appropriate?

I was thinking about this after I passed a young woman wearing a head scarf. I have no idea whether her ethnicity was Persian, Indian, middle eastern, or something else. IF I was asked to describe her, is there any acceptable term/phrase I could use other than saying, “she was wearing a head scarf.”

Or if a person is dark skinned - apparently of African descent. Is it OKAY to describe them as “black?”

No, I don’t feel the need to “describe” everyone I meet. But I do occasionally think of such things to avoid errors such as when I was publicly castigated for referring to someone as “oriental.” I’ve always found the descriptor “Asian” problematic.

For that matter, how should I describe my lily-white ass? :smiley:

IMO, barring direction from someone about what identifiers they prefer, “white” is okay, “black” is okay, “African American” is okay, “Caucasian” is okay, “Japanese-American” is okay, “Japanese” is okay, “Turkish” is okay, “Turkish American” is okay, etc, presuming these are accurate (i.e. don’t call a Japanese tourist “Japanese-American”). If you make a mistake, just apologize graciously and thank them for the correction.

I’m all for describing someone with descriptors that work. I am not a racist, but I do not claim to “not see color”. I have two buddies named Joe. They’re both the same age, height, and weight. Both are retired, but I don’t know what either did for a living. Both wear dorky glasses. When I tell my gf I ran into Joe, I always say either “white Joe” or “black Joe” because that’s the easiest way to be sure she knows who I’m talking about.

Fair enough. But what if I don’t know if someone is Japanese, Chinese, or Korean - or maybe even Pacific Islander? And I don’t know if they are a tourist or citizen?

I think “Asian” is acceptable, perhaps “SE Asian”, to distinguish from them from Indian, parts of Russia, etc.

You can say “I don’t know their ethnicity”. Maybe “Asian” or “East Asian” (or “South Asian”, for that matter) would be fine too. None of this should be a big deal – at worst you make a minor mistake that you can apologize for and learn from.

Asia is a big place, as you point out. Now, keeping in mind that Japan, China, and Korea are not in Southeast Asia, and many Pacific Islands are not close to Asia at all, the terminology you propose is problematic at best IMO. Better not to go there; why guess? Perhaps the woman was indeed Asian, but you don’t really know, so best to stick with “the woman wearing a headscarf”. BTW be aware that “black” is often a social construct, so if some guy has a dark complexion ISTM you can’t go wrong by saying so. In short, if you need to describe a stranger, it is better to physically describe them than try to imagine what their “ethnic/racial” background might be.

Many of my concerns date back from a time that I was just talking about someone in a training class, and unthinkingly referred to them as “oriental”. I was loudly and publicly berated, and told the proper term was “Asian.” Soon after, I was watching a TV show where they said the suspect was narrowed down to 1 of 2 “Asian” employees - obviously not counting the folk of apparent “Indian” descent.

Referring to the woman as wearing a headscarf is potentially problematic, if I do not know that she wears the scarf at all times. But if I said she appeared to be of middle-eastern, possibly Indian descent, that would assist identification whatever she was wearing.

If I describe someone as black, should I avoid describing them as light- or dark-skinned?

Hell, if I say someone is blonde w/ blue eyes, or appears “typically Scandinavian”, is that offensive? Does MY race matter WRT the terms I may use w/o reproach?

It seems odd to me, but I am not so much “imagining what someone’s ethnic/racial background is”, as I am referring to generally understood shared characteristics of certain groups. So if I say someone “looked Hispanic” - that conveys a great deal of information efficiently, without suggesting any guess as to nationality, or making any character assumptions one way or another.

I’m not seeing what the issue would be, unless somehow your description is derogatory or otherwise reasonably offensive. If there’s a need to describe someone, describing their ethnicity is perfectly fine, as long as you don’t try and get too specific without knowing it to that level of specificity, or if you aren’t playing into stereotypes or being offensive somehow.

Sometimes someone’s ethnic description is the most accurate way to distinguish them from someone else- a guy in high school could have been described as about 5’8", thin, athletic, short-haired, brown eyed and black haired. That wouldn’t necessarily get you anywhere- that described probably 15 guys in my graduating class. But if you’d have added in that he was black, that narrowed it down to just him.

My question reflects my ignorance. I do not wish to offend people, but I may not be up on what is or is not considered offensive. When I described the gentleman as oriental, I was unaware that that term was in appropriate. I do not wish to repeat such a mistake. Like you said, I could’ve described the guy with the black hair, but that wouldn’t have narrowed it down.

Re: some people of apparent Indian/Pakistani/middle eastern descent - I am not able to distinguish between them, so I don’t want to offend someone through my ignorance. Given tensions between the countries, I can imagine some Indians might take offense at being called Pakistani - and vice versa.

In fact - is “South Asian” the description for Indian/Pakistan/Bangladeshi? “East Asian” for Chinese/Japanese/Korean?

Purely asking others to help dispel my ignorance.

Not to start that whole debate over again, but your problem, Dinsdale, is exactly one of the things people called out in an old thread as a problem with political correctness; namely, that it expects everyone to keep up on everyone else’s preferred term.

One person may be fine with Hispanic, another with Latino, and a third with Latinx (WTF that is). And all may get rightly irritated if they’re called “Mexicans” if they’re not actually, you know, from Mexico or of Mexican descent.

But how are you to know which descriptor to use? I also got snagged by the Oriental/Asian trap myself. Growing up in SW Houston, there was a very large Asian minority- primarily Vietnamese and Chinese, but with a fair number of Indians, Pakistanis and a smaller number of Cambodians and Laotians. And through the 1980s, the term of choice was “Oriental”- as used by the community itself in lieu of a specific national origin. So I felt pretty comfortable using Oriental as a descriptor. Fast forward a few years into the early 2000s, and I referred to someone as Oriental, and got my ass chewed, much to my surprise and dismay. I guess I didn’t get the memo, as I’d moved away from Houston by then and was not living in a large Asian community.

The good news is that most people are reasonable about it- as long as you’re not using a clear slur or trying to be offensive, they’ll probably give you some grace on it and not sweat it, even if their preferred term isn’t what you used.

That’s the descriptor I use for that area of the world, and it seems to be acceptable, so far as I can tell, and I work a lot within the community and advertise a subset of my services specifically to South Asians, referred to as such.

According to the United Nations Statistical Division, East Asia consists of China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia, while Southern Asia includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

I do think it’s pointless to guess, though, whether or not you in fact end up offending anyone. Even if a description seems obvious to you, it may not be to the person who is supposed to understand your description. For example, your hypothetical Hispanic fellow may be from any one of two dozen countries; I genuinely would have no idea what you think they are supposed to look like or how to reliably distinguish them by sight from a Brazilian, Catalan, or Nahua.

I don’t think I’ve heard people from Asia described as Oriental since the 1960’s. You guys should get out more. Sounds archaic to my ear.

I am fine with south or east Asian. Someone suggested Turkish as a possible descriptor, but what does it describe. The one Turk I knew at all well was an a-hole but definitely a white a-hole. The trouble with African-American is they might not be American. I would stick with black or even negro.

In the rural area where I live, “oriental” would be a huge step up from what I’m used to hearing people say. :frowning:

Huh. I’ve heard it within the last 30 days. It depends on what age of people you hang out with. A lot of people I know in their 70s and up still use “Oriental.”

Yes. Although be careful putting “Middle Eastern” in with us South Asians (my family is from the subcontinent). Middle Easterners aren’t South Asian. They can be called West Asian - though no one really refers to them that way - or Middle Eastern. I always hated being called Middle Eastern since Pakistan is not in the ME.

Well lah-di-dah. South of Chicago, the Pekin HS team was the Chinks well into the 70s. :eek:

And Chinese restaurants called Oriental this or that were not at all uncommon well past the 60s. Maybe it is you who ought to get out more! :wink:

That is one I personally have difficulty with. I cannot readily tell whether certain people are from S Asia or what you call W Asia. I guess I can just say, “They look like many folk from X look.”

That’s the weak point. Tell me to look for the woman in the pistachio monokini.


Or Desi, but it tends to be used more as a self-identifier, IME. Desi - Wikipedia