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A Somewhat Ignorant, But Innocent Question

Guest Loath

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Guest Loath

Hello everyone,

I sort of stumbled here looking for an answer to something. This is going to sound ignorant and, I suppose it is, just not maliciously so. I've lived most of my life in Finland and now in Japan and I've never really had many friends of color. English is also not my native language, so I hope you will excuse my question.

Which words are acceptable or preferred when talking about people of color, if you do not know whether they are African-American or not? I know what the question sounds like and I promise you I mean it in the most sincere way I can. In Finnish there some words that can be used both in a neutral or even good way, but also be very insulting depending on the context and tone. There is still a problem with racism, but in Finland that always feels foreign to me. Like the racists were invaders in our country, whereas the immigrants often seemed to be even more appreciative of Finnish values. But I digress, at the risk of sounding even more ignorant that I already have, I want to ask the following.

In English language, is it rude or insulting to call someone a colored person? Or a black person? Or maybe a person of color?

People are obviously always people, but in written form distinction between ones skin color is sometimes relevant. This came up today (though probably come up a bunch in the past too, but never cared enough to actually ask about it) and I noticed that though I do consider myself a normal human being, I am somewhat unsure of if I am actually equipped to handle this. I know, I do not mean it a derogatory way no matter which word I choose (the obvious horrible ones I would never use), but it is not up to me to say how people get to receive it.

Man, this sounds even more ignorant than it did in my head. I guess, I am also saddened to notice that the current climate is such that I feel so awkward even talking about this. 

Anyways, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thank you in advance.

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Well you've come to the right place. The only ignorant question is the one not asked.

So that I understand where you are coming from please use the term in a sentence here are some examples.

  • This morning, on the bus, a colored person sat next to me and I quickly changed my seat.
  • A black person entered my store, and I made sure I kept my eye on them.
  • Over dinner I learned my daughter is dating a person of color; I hope it is just a phase. 

If you share your sample sentence I can tell you the appropriate phrase to use when describing someone.

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@ Guest Loath I must say, that for English to be your second language you write it much better than most Americans do.  I think that if you speak with an accent, black people will not be offended by your use of any of the adjectives you inquired about.  We will know that you are not familiar with the "no-nos" and give you a pass and at some point tell you that "negro" and "colored" are labels that conjure up the past.  

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Guest Loath

Thank you all for your understanding and your replies.

@Troy The example sentences you gave are quite blunt and to the point. I am glad that they stand out to me as being from someone I don't want to be associated with. The sentence this came up with me, was the following (doing some creative writing):

"The town may have been conservative in its values, but racism was not really a part of this, and it seemed that this also wasn't what Miss Bobby was referring to, though she was one of the few people of color in the town."

I want to establish Miss Bobby as a person of color, but I am unsure as to how to say it. This is in reaction to Miss Bobby saying that she hoped the town in question, could do with some lightening up. She herself is a high school teacher in her early thirties. I have to say it quite bluntly, but not maliciously because of the character thinking this.

@Delano I am sorry, but could you clarify a bit, what you mean by prefacing my statements.

@Cynique Thank you for the complements. Finnish education system and a lot of Jay Leno without subtitles growing up paid off, I guess. It might sound a bit arrogant, but I am actually not sure if my accent is thick enough to permit me that excuse. I obviously have one, but it may not be quite protruding enough, maybe, I don't really know. 

To add to my earlier ignorance though: Do you mean then that "colored" is a derogatory term? It seems like it could be neutral, but I actually am not sure.

Thank you all for your patience. I can't even imagine how ignorant I must be coming off here. I actually thought I was part of the more enlightened part of the population (and in terms of my values I think I still definitely am), but noticing how ill-equipped I am to handle something like this has really floored me.

I do appreciate (and need) all your help.

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Laoth, I not a novelist, but I'm a reader.  So while I won't try to tell you how to write, I will tell you how I've interpreted what you've written.  Also, these are my opinions and I'm not asserting that this is the "right" way.

"Person of color" is so nebulous a description it is meaningless. It is a description that can be applied to the vast majority of people on Earth. 

But the way you've used the term is perfectly acceptable. I simply would not use it for the reason stated--it is not clear that you are talking about a Black person.  "Black" would also be acceptable because it is so commonly used, and clearer.

"Colored" is an anachronism and would not be appropriate unless you were writing a period piece or trying to be snarky or funny.

But since you are engaged in creative writing you might consider dispensing with these terms altogether, and figure out another way of expressing the thought.  But here I'm entering an arena beyond my expertise ;)

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Guest Loath

@Troy Thank you for your response. It very helpful.

I agree fully with both points you made. My choice to use the phrase "person of color" was not my first one, but simply a hedge towards the most neutral seeming one.

I did not actually know that "colored" had a derogatory tone to it. That's probably something I have not had enough cultural exposure to figure out, although I probably would have, had I been paying a bit more attention. It does seem a lot clearer now that you've put it in context for me.

I am not a novelist either - not yet, at least - but I do actually completely agree with you that bluntly stating a character's skin color is lazy and blunt in the wrong kind of way. With that said, it is actually the correct choice for this particular case and this particular character as he is somewhat rigid about the world around him. To him people are just a sum of their components and skin color would be one. He's not the healthiest of individual. But that's another point all together.

I guess my question would've boiled down to whether describing someone as a black person was acceptable or not. With that cleared, I feel like I want to stress that I do understand how childish my questions probably seem and I do understand that having to have a conversation like this is missing the point of what should be fixed in both the current political climate as well as with certain aspects of society as a whole. Meaning that now that I have become aware, with your handheld help, that describing someone as a black person is acceptable, I still do not consider myself really anymore enlightened in racial issues. I know that what little window I have had to them and as sympathetic as I may have been to them, has been but surface deep and I cannot claim to understand the situation any further than that. Hopefully, I can patch at least some of that with an appropriate dose of humility.

Thank you for your time and thank you responses.

P.s. Starting four paragraphs in a row with the word "I" is not really a mark of a good writer, but it's 3 am here, so I hope it can be let slide.

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In English language, is it rude or insulting to call someone a colored person? Or a black person? Or maybe a person of color?

Thanks for having the good sense to actually ASK these questions rather than just ASSUME them.

I'm sure Troy and Delano have giving you a lot of information so I just want to chime in and give my 2 cents worth also.......



In contemporary United States today, calling Black people "colored" is considered a bit insulting.
It's almost as bad as calling them a "negro".

In South Africa the word "colored" has a different connotation, but in the United States you shouldn't say it.

However it IS acceptable to refer to Black, or some Latinos and Asians as people OF COLOR.



When it comes to calling someone "Black".
It's usually not bad, but a lot of people who would technically be considered "Black" from outside of the United States from neighboring countries like Puerto Rico, Jamaica, or even parts of Africa may object to being called "Black".......so be careful.

Usually calling AfroAmericans (or African Americans) Black is OK....usually.

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