A co-worker and I just discussed whether "brown people" (for people with Latin American origin or perhaps Middle-Eastern origin?) is acceptable in the US, as I read this phrasing more often now, e.g. in this source, attributed to an ACLU lawyer:

At a time when corporations are finally being held accountable for their roles in enabling mass incarceration, it is encouraging to see a company as powerful as Google cutting ties with businesses that profit from incarcerating poor Black and brown people... [...]

Said co-worker also challenged my observation that "black" is okay. In his view, all such descriptors should be based on geographical origin of the person instead of based on skin color. My understanding was that geographical descriptors were not as mainstream anymore, since they also led to utter inaccuracies like "Caucasian" for white people.

So, previously I would have binned the terms the following way:

  • "white person" - ok to use if you must
  • "black person" - ok to use if you must
  • "brown person" - totally unsure about this
  • "red person"/"yellow person" - not ok, because perceived as clearly racist

Which of these are actually accepted?

(I am white, if that helps.)

closed as primarily opinion-based by Robusto, Andrew, Varun Nair, Jeff Morrow, Lucian Sava May 28 '18 at 14:21

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    The language of racial and ethnic identity is constantly evolving, and, at least in the U.S., full of consequences if you make a mistake. For example, using "brown people" to reference Hispanics is generally wrong -- except when mocking someone's perceived racism. Same for "yellow" or "red" people. "White people" is generally fine -- but it might offend those who have strong opinions about race relations. Meanwhile "black" has been used for so many years it's generally fine -- but again, it's hard to tell what will set people off. – Andrew May 17 '18 at 15:19
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    The point is, I don't think this question can be definitively answered, as it depends on opinion and context. – Andrew May 17 '18 at 15:22
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    The answer is dependent on rapidly evolving social interpretation of race. For example, we may consider the word "black" to be preferred today. Yet, the dreaded n-word has Latin root that literally (not figuratively) means "black". Political and historical context makes one of them highly offensive and the other preferable in today's usage. In contemporary usage, skin colour-based references do seem to be preferred to origin-based descriptors. – urnonav May 17 '18 at 15:53
  • Where I live (Toronto), I've most often heard the phrase "brown people" being used as a self-description by people of South Asian descent (that is, from the Indian subcontinent). I personally would not feel comfortable using it except with a very close friend who is South Asian - I would not use it with a stranger. – Canadian Yankee May 17 '18 at 16:26
  • @CanadianYankee, Andrew, I realize now that I may have prejudices about incarceration rates take over when I equated "brown" and "Latin American"/"Middle Easterners". – nulldozer May 17 '18 at 17:20

The color of someone's skin doesn't necessarily reflect their ethnicity, especially in "melting pot" areas that have large populations of mixed ethnicity people.

So, if you are trying to be accurate, you would only use skin color to describe a group if you were actually talking about their skin color and not necessarily their ethnicity. For example, "Many blacks are unaware of a skin cancer that primarily affects dark-skinned people"

If you're talking about minority ethnic groups, just say "minorities" unless it's important to distinguish which minority group. For example, "The Fate of Minorities in Post-ISIS Syria and Iraq" versus ‘Slow genocide’: Myanmar’s invisible war on the Kachin Christian minority.

If you need to distinguish a group of people by their ethnicity, use their ethnicity, not their skin color. Regardless of whether it is inflammatory to try to, for example, lump all Hispanic people into the "brown people" group, it's just not accurate.

That all being said, "white" is not an ethnicity, but it can be a necessary distinction when talking about discrimination. Canada has tried to tackle this problem with the idea of a "visible minority" but that is also complicated ( ‘Visible minority:’ A misleading concept that ought to be retired )

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