Posted on August 4, 2004

Be Careful With Racial, Ethnic Labels

Stephen Wilbers, Orange County Register, Aug. 2

“I’m an Eskimo,” a middle-age woman told me on a recent visit to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. “You may refer to me as Eskimo.”

“If you call me an Eskimo,” a young woman said minutes later, “I will answer because that’s how you know me, but I am not Eskimo. I am Yup’ik.”

In Alaska, tourists eagerly seek out art and culture that is referred to as “Native,” but in Minnesota the Indian Affairs Council recently passed a resolution that “officially requests Minnesota news media and agencies of government to refer to members of federally recognized tribes as American Indians or Indians” rather than as Native Americans.

So are you Eskimo or Yup’ik, Native American or Indian, white or Caucasian, black or African-American, Hispanic or Latino, Mexican American or Chicano?

Here’s my advice:

People of color. An acceptable but ambiguous term. Many American Indians and Asian-Americans reject this designation.

Non-Caucasian and nonwhite. Use only in carefully defined contexts. These terms can be interpreted as suggesting that white is the norm and other races are the exception. Don’t use in reference to individuals.

Black or African-American? Both are acceptable, though some blacks object to the term African-American, and vice versa.

The learning resources centers at the University of Minnesota stopped using black about five years ago in favor of African-American or of African descent. The Orange County Register uses black in most instances, but uses African-American (with the hyphen) for cultural connections. “Sharon Sayles Belton is the first black woman to be elected mayor of Minneapolis,” for example, but “Seitu Jones expresses his African-American heritage in his artwork.”

The black community or the African-American community? Neither. To refer to the black community wrongly suggests that all members hold the same opinion. Likewise with other groups. Instead, use “many blacks” or “many Asian Americans” in reference to a broadly held view.

African-American or Sudanese? Many recent African immigrants don’t consider themselves African-Americans but prefer to be linked to their country of origin, as in Sudanese or Ethiopian American.

Somalian or Somali? Somali, both as noun and an adjective. “A Somali man identified himself as a Somali.”

Sioux, Dakota or Lakota? Sioux is a shortening of a French word adapted from an Ojibwe word meaning “snake.” The Mdewakanton Sioux refer to themselves sometimes as Sioux and sometimes as the Mdewakanton Dakota Community. Dakota and Lakota are variations in spelling for the same word, which means “friend” or “ally.”

Anishinabe, Chippewa or Ojibwe? All are acceptable references to the same groups of people. Anishinabe, meaning “original man,” is the tribal name. Chippewa is the official name of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Ojibwe, rather than Ojibwa or Ojibway, seems to be gaining favor as the preferred spelling and is often used in reference to individuals.

Hispanic, Latino, Chicano or Mexican-American? There’s no consensus. Some organizations have stopped using Hispanic in favor of Hispanic ethnicity or of Hispanic origin. Some Hispanics prefer Latino or Latina, and some Mexican-Americans prefer Chicano or Chicana.

I’d like to hear your thoughts.