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Thursday, July 22, 2010
It's Okay to Ask.
A few days ago, I heard someone use the word Oriental (as in rug) to describe a Japanese woman and I physically cringed.  (She's either Japanese or Asian, right?)  But since I wasn't a part of the conversation, I kept my thoughts to myself and left the building.  And then I got to thinking (there I go thinking again) about all of the antiquated and inappropriate references to culture and ethnicity we all hear and - yes - even use.
The 2010 Census used the word Negro as a choice (along with Black and African-American) to describe a person of African descent. It created quite a stir. And while I think the word is outdated, it has never been a pejorative term, and there are a number of older people that still define themselves in this way.
I also found find some interesting information about using the term Native American vs. American Indian"As The American Heritage Book of English Usage points out, 'the acceptance of Native American has not brought about the demise of [the word] Indian. Unlike Negro, which was quickly stigmatized once black became preferred, Indian never fell out of favor with a large segment of the American population.  A 1995 Census Bureau Survey of preferences for racial and ethnic terminology (there is no more recent survey) indicated that 49% of Native people preferred being called American Indian, 37% preferred Native American, 3.6% preferred 'some other term,' and 5% had no preference.' "  [Source: infoplease.com]
And let's not forget East Indian vs. Asian Indian vs. Indian American vs. Desi to identify people from the Indian subcontinent.  Indolink.com has this to say:  "The ultimate dilemma is that in Britain and East Africa [a person from the Indian subcontinent] is an Asian. In Russia, Southeast Asia, and Europe and Fiji [s/he] is still an Indian. In the Caribbean [s/he] is an East Indian. In Canada [s/he] may be an Indo-Canadian. But in America [s/he] can never be 'Indian,' while at the same time [her/his] Asian identity is oftentimes suspect – thanks to the average American’s geographic illiteracy [ouch!]. As Sadanand Dhume wrote, ‘Asian in America means Chang not Chakravarti.’"  I could go on and on giving examples of some of the inaccurate cultural terms many tend to use, but I'm hoping my overall point has been made. 
So look.  It's hard to be politically correct all of the time. I get that. And walking around on eggshells in fear that you will incorrectly refer to and/or insult a persons cultural or ethnic background is no way to live. But being aware of what is appropriate is a good thing.  So here's the challenge:  If you are unsure about what term is culturally or ethnically appropriate, try politely asking the person you are referring to what makes him/her comfortable.  Granted, it may be different for two people from the same background, but it really does seem like the right thing to do.  Besides that, it's pretty interesting stuff.  =)

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