58

Excuse my ignorance, I have lived in the UK for 8 years however I still don't know how to refer to a black person, as I came from a country where racism was not an issue.

Some agency called me last week and I was trying to explain to the person over the phone that I had visited them a few days prior to his phone call and I had been served by one of his colleagues, he insisted on knowing the name of that person and I couldn't remember the name so I said it was the black guy. I could tell that it was not appropriate or maybe he just didn't like the way I described his colleague.

Should I have said "dark"? "tanned"? or what exactly? I can't think of saying black American (I hear that lots on TV) as I live in the UK and nobody is American. Also I don't know what to add to the word "Afro" to make the equivalent of "black".

I have asked a friend who isn't a native speaker either and she only confused me more by saying that I can't even call a blackboard that name any more but it has to called "whiteboard" in order not to offend black people.

  • 45
    A blackboard and a whiteboard are different things, so I think calling one the other would only lead to confusion. I can call my blacklist a whitelist, but it will mess up my security for sure. Changing my dinner invitation dress code from black tie to white tie has an effect on how people dress, not on how racist their thoughts may be. And calling the black pieces on a chess board white will not do any good either. – oerkelens Sep 8 '14 at 9:05
  • 36
    Because it's the most distinguishing feature and it's nothing to be ashamed of – Terve Sep 8 '14 at 13:15
  • 20
    You can of course use the terms blackboard and whiteboard without offending anyone. There is nothing wrong with the word "black", the concept of blackness or having black skin. I think your friend has missed the point. – Lembik Sep 8 '14 at 16:13
  • 42
    You cannot go wrong with "African-American" - you can if you're attempting to describe a UK citizen (the OP mentions they're in the UK) of Jamaican descent. You've used two words to describe someone and neither of them are correct. You can't get much more wrong than that. – Rob Moir Sep 9 '14 at 14:57
  • 15
    @SteveBennett That's a bunch of baloney. Ever played the game Guess Who? If asking "is your person black" can potentially eliminate all but a few options then it's strategically the right choice. If I walk into an office with only one black guy and am asked which employee I talked to last when I don't know their name, you damn well better believe I'll say "the black guy" because it eliminates all other options. Otherwise I'd have to sit there and go "the tall guy with short black hair, kind of skinny, brown eyes..." and still describe 8 people. – Doc Sep 10 '14 at 2:32
75

In the UK, black person is the usual way to describe someone of African or Caribbean ethnic background and I wouldn't expect it to be taken as offensive. Referring to someone as a black (as a noun) would be offensive.

Referring to someone as the black guy could conceivably be interpreted as a little disrespectful if you might have been expected to call them by name, depending on the context. In your specific example you could have said I don't remember your colleague's name but he's black, if that helps? and I wouldn't expect anyone to be upset by that form of words.

Your friend is either misinformed or engaging in propaganda against perceived "political correctness". Stories about the word "black" being banned in some context or other pop up in the tabloid press with depressing regularity but invariably turn out to be untrue or misreported.

  • 33
    "Fred, John, James and the black guy" is very disrespectful. "The blonde guy, the guy with the earring, the one with the big nose and the black guy" isn't. – gnasher729 Sep 8 '14 at 14:25
  • 6
    @Lembik: Usually, one starts with the most obvious difference from whatever is "common" in the potential set. There exist places where some people are mostly white, making "black skin" a very obvious difference. – Mooing Duck Sep 8 '14 at 21:18
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    @gnashery729 I agree that it is perceived as disrespectful, but not that it is disrespectful. It is only seen that way because the race issue is a sensitive one for historical reasons. If you were to say "Fred, John, James and the French guy" nobody would be offended. The fact that "and the Black guy" is singled out as offensive is itself a form of discrimination that shouldn't exist. In an ideal world skin colour or race would be so unimportant that you could refer to it without anyone caring. I realise that what I'm saying is more philosophical than practical however. – JBentley Sep 8 '14 at 23:53
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    @JBentley: If I named three people by name but not the French guy, of course the French guy would be offended. Rightfully so. Three names + one identifying description is offending. Four identifying descriptions is not offending. – gnasher729 Sep 9 '14 at 9:41
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    @gnasher729 That depends entirely on context. The French guy would only be offended if your acquaintance with him is such that he would expect you to know and remember his name. Even so, his being offended is about the fact that you didn't bother to learn his name, not about the fact that you called him French. – JBentley Sep 9 '14 at 16:16
25

To answer the last part of your question – where someone told you that you should avoid using the term blackboard – there is a difference between a blackboard and a whiteboard; the two terms refer to different products.

Blackboard vs. whiteboard

A blackboard, also called a chalkboard, is usually black or dark green and is meant to be written on using chalk.

blackboard

A whiteboard is a smooth white plastic-coated board, meant to be written on using a felt pen.

whiteboard — "Blank whiteboard" by BrokenSphere - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Blackboards and whiteboards are different things. Whiteboards are starting to displace blackboards due to chalk allergies, among other reasons. However, referring to a blackboard as a "whiteboard" due to racial sensitivity is silly political correctness gone wild. If you really need a euphemism, call it a chalkboard.

  • 1
    @Laure Done. (Blackboard image is Public Domain. Whiteboard image is CC-BY-SA.) – 200_success Sep 8 '14 at 6:54
  • 1
    I first agreed with @Esoteric until I paid more attention to the last paragraph, and noticed that this is indeed addressing a part of the question that went unaddressed in a previous answer. Interestingly enough, I think some chalkboards are called blackboards, even when they are green, which a quick Google search confirms. At least in the U.S., I don't think anyone would resent the term blackboard, although you might get a funny look if you referred to a chalkboard as a whiteboard. – J.R. Sep 8 '14 at 9:05
  • 2
    Yes, my mistake, I missed the last remark in the question. I do think this would be better as part of your other answer, though. On its own it doesn't address the bulk of the question. – Esoteric Screen Name Sep 8 '14 at 9:07
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    "chalk allergies" My ears certainly have a chalk allergy. – Peter Sep 8 '14 at 14:27
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    I'm pretty sure that "referring to a blackboard as a whiteboard due to racial sensitivity" is eitehr a misunderstood joke or a myth made up by the kind of person who sees an evil conspiration to destroy their way of life in any change they did not propose themselves. – Michael Borgwardt Sep 8 '14 at 15:54
21

Preferred terms

  • African immigrant: If you know for a fact that the person was born in Africa and is now living in the UK, this is a safe term to use, as it frames the subject in terms of circumstances such as birthplace and residence, rather than race. Technically, it could also include non-black people who meet those criteria, though. Based on feedback, this is not recommended.
  • African-American: This is the preferred polite term in the United States. I don't believe that there is a common British equivalent, though. The term is generally interpreted to include only dark-skinned Africans and their descendants.
  • Black: This is blunt, but still safe to use. In my opinion, trying to avoid the standard term black by using alternative terms such as dark or tanned would be worse.

Terms to avoid

  • 11
    Also, never say tanned! Reminds me of that Friends episode in the tanning salon: "So, how dark do you want to be? We have 1, 2, or 3.", "Well uh, I like how you look, what are you?", "Puerto Rican.". – Matt Fletcher Sep 8 '14 at 8:18
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    I believe that a black person in Britain is statistically likely to be (a) not an immigrant but born within UK, and (b) not of direct African descent but from Carribean origins. So "African immigrant" would be a terribly bad default option, unless you know the ancestry of that particular person. – Peteris Sep 8 '14 at 12:22
  • 2
    "African immigrant" wouldn't go down well with someone whose ancestors lived in Britain for 200 or more years. And I read an article once about people in South Africa who got really annoyed being called "African American". – gnasher729 Sep 8 '14 at 14:22
  • 3
    "Afro-Caribbean" is probably the closest UK equivalent to "African-American". In many cases it's not an especially accurate description (many black British people are descended from Africans, and have no Caribbean ancestry), but unlikely to seriously offend anyone. – tobyink Sep 8 '14 at 16:52
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    Black people don't generally use the American Standard English word "n----r" jokingly; they use the related African American Vernacular English word "nigga", which means roughly "person" or "man": a different word in a different dialect. If you don't speak AAVE, don't use the word. – Russell Borogove Sep 8 '14 at 17:44
16

As you pointed out "African-American" doesn't work for the UK, as the person is not American.

That term, at least in the U.S. has somewhat fallen out of favor in recent years because there are also black Dominicans, Jamaicans, Brits, and actual Africans who got tired of being mislabeled. I imagine it's a similar situation in the UK.

While "African-American" is still very common here, using "black" seems to be be the most recent "acceptable" term because it is in fact a descriptive neutral adjective & avoids the question of specific cultural backgrounds.

As pointed out above, however, using "black" as a noun ("a black" or "the blacks") is disrespectful because it's just another way to group people together under a blanket stereotype. It becomes a sort of stand-in for "the N-word" and ceases to be a useful descriptor for the individual.

Perhaps they have several "black guys" working there? Offering more information might help narrow things down. I might suggest throwing it into a list of other adjectives:

He was about 30, tall, black, and wore glasses - sorry, but I don't remember his name.
He was here last Thursday around 2pm.

Is this hyper-sensitive overkill? Maybe. On the surface it seems sort of ridiculous to have to dance around somebody's most obvious identifying characteristic ... The commenter above made a good point about this though - you wouldn't refer to "the big-forehead guy" or "the hot chick" in polite conversation, even if those descriptions are accurate.

'An African American', or 'a black'?

African-American vs. black

  • 8
    As for the "big forehead guy" and the "woman with huge boobs," part of what makes this tricky is learning what discriptions are acceptable, which are inappropriate, and which fall in the middle. That's partly cultural, and very situation-dependent. I think "the fellow with glasses" is okay, and maybe "the woman with long red hair." Depending on the situation, "the bald guy," or "the black guy," or "the pretty woman," could be risky. Calling someone "the short one" might be met with a good-natured laugh, or a look of resentment. Some are more sensitive about race, height, or hair than others. – J.R. Sep 8 '14 at 21:15
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    I personally find it confusing that people get offended by the word itself instead of the actual context. If someone uses "the black guy" as a description because that's the only difference between a group of people (for example, a bunch of construction workers wearing the same overall uniform with similar builds), they should not be offended. Now, if that someone use it explicitly for insult, then they should by all rights be offended, but you can replace the word with any other insult and it won't make things any better (such as "enterprise strategic downsizing") – Raestloz Sep 9 '14 at 7:12
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    I'm surprised not to see "person of color" mentioned in the US context, as I've seen it a lot in print/online. I'm from the UK, though, so don't know if this is used colloquially, or only in more formal registers. – IMSoP Sep 9 '14 at 18:47
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    True "person of color" is often used as a "catch-all" term for a group of people when discussing policies or experience - but not typically as a way to describe/identify a person as in the original question. People might say "as a person of color I think X about issue Y." Using it to say "I don't know his name, but he was a person of color" sounds a lot like the very outdated "he's colored," which is from the 1950s & no longer widely used. – mc01 Sep 9 '14 at 19:07
  • Person of color sounds bad to my (Dutch) ears as well though. First, everybody has a color, and second it reminds of the old South African division of people into three classes, white, colored (=mixed race/Asian) and black. – RemcoGerlich Sep 11 '14 at 8:11
6

I'm from Canada, where we have a huge immigrant population from everywhere and the following terms in a neutral sentence (particularly a simple descriptive one) are 100% ok:

  • White
  • Black
  • Asian
  • Arab / Middle Eastern
  • Hispanic
  • Mediterranean / Greek
  • Australian / Ozzie
  • Scandinavian
  • Jewish
  • Muslim (mainly with women, look for a headscarf)
  • Indian (the asian kind)
  • Sikh (Indian guy with a turban)
  • Native (the N.American kind. Too many real Indians, needed a new term)
  • Tribal (Black, dresses like a traditional African)
  • Caribbean (Black guy with colourful western clothing. Jamaican accent optional)
  • Zulu / Bushman ( rather rare, esp. in winter. Black, loincloth, some kind of facial piercings made from animal parts. Spear and warpaint optional. Apparently a regular sight in Jo'burg)

"Afro" usually refers to the hairstyle - "black girl with the huge afro" -> I know exactly who to look for.

Upright writing panels with a dark surface (black, grey, green, navy etc.) designed to accept chalk are called blackboards. Period. Call them anything else and most Canadians will call the speaker an idiot.

Various ethnic slurs like Nigger are frequently used by people within that group to refer to themselves. People outside that group can occasionally get away with it if they know the recipient quite well. I have no objection if my black co-workers call me "honky", but they will get some cotton-harvesting comments in return. they're fine with it. Do NOT try this on a group of young african-americans on a side street in central Los Angeles.

So, Mr. IT Guru (sorry, Person IT Guru), if I send someone to meet you at the airport you are the black guy off the flight from Heathrow. Ibrahim is the short middle-eastern man. Once we get to know you we will stir in adjectives like "overly sensitive", "politically-correct-to-a-fault" and "annoying". Your name will not be used very much.

  • 3
    Lot's of stereotypes there. – Viktor Mellgren Sep 8 '14 at 15:02
  • This does not seem to answer the question. – Laure Sep 8 '14 at 16:33
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    @Laure "What is the right word to describe a black person?" -> "In Canada, it is acceptable to call a black person a 'black person'. Here are some other examples." – paul Sep 9 '14 at 3:08
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    @paul (mainly with women, look for a headscarf), not all women with headscarfs are muslim, and many people without headscarfes are muslim too. I'd say muslim is not a desciption of looks, rather a religion. – Viktor Mellgren Sep 9 '14 at 11:00
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    @Vixen: You're quite correct, it's not 100%. But it's dominant enough that it's a useful description. If she's not wearing that particular fashion of headscarf she's "the middle-eastern woman" (what she does after work is spectacularly none of my business). Same if it's a Hello Kitty print. I once met a teacher who worked at an Islamic elementary school - she wore the whole getup and had no objections at all to the description even though she was non-religious and as white as I am. The whole point here is how to refer to a person whose name you do not know but has distinguishing features. – paul Sep 9 '14 at 13:16
5

"Tanned" and "Dark Complexion" are definitely terms to avoid - not because they're offensive - they're just confusing. If you describe someone as "tanned" I would never think that you're a referring to a black or Asian person.

Black would be the obvious choice in most contexts (as in "(s)he's a black guy/woman") although it's not really specific enough. OK, maybe they're the only black person there but bringing attention to that seems a little crass. It's fine as part of a wider description though.

Similarly, if I was describing someone who was in a wheelchair I probably would mention that they're in a wheelchair - but my description wouldn't just be "The guy in a wheelchair" because that comes across as a rather one dimensional view of someone.

  • 1
    Dark complexion is the safest I think. – user10175 Sep 9 '14 at 4:39
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    +1 for "as part of a wider description", which I think is really the key here. – IMSoP Sep 9 '14 at 18:40
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    "Dark complexion" is pretty useless if you have two people of Jamaican and Indian origin, plus a white guy who spent much too much money on fake tan. – gnasher729 Sep 9 '14 at 21:47
  • +1. I usually think of "dark complexion" as a relative term--you can have a white guy whose skin is darker than average for a white guy, and he has a "dark complexion". Similarly, you can have a black guy or an Asian guy whose skin is darker than average for those groups, and he has a "dark complexion". To me, "tanned" specifically means "someone with extra melanin due to exposure to the sun". My father is Asian, and his skin gets darker after sun exposure just like a white person's would, so it seems a little ridiculous to describe his base skin tone as "tanned". – tsleyson Sep 9 '14 at 23:11
3

Literally: Black skinned
Often used and relatively safe: Black
A little safer: Black person

It's not fully safe, but that is a problem with society. "Black skinned" is exactly how it is unless they have a lighter tone and then I guess you can replace "black" with the tone, but in the end I can't see why you have to, it's become a too touchy subject.
Saying black is also safer and more literal than most, but it seems a little labelling as if you ARE black rather than somebody with black skin.
Also try to avoid even partially negative words with black as it may be taken the wrong way, for example, use black person over black guy.
I would say any of the above is literally correct, but not exactly socially accepted but as you tend towards socially accepted it becomes less literally correct as if the whole subject is something that should be avoided and that itself causes problems.
African-American and all those location based names are just incorrect and may be taken negatively for completely different reasons because being called African-American who themself and their family has always lived in say the UK is just wrong.

3

I'll break down the issue with using the term black guy from my perspective. First is the term black; you are identifying someone completely by their skin color. Second is the term guy; it's a casual word that doesn't confer respect. Put those two together and you are identifying someone by their racial characteristic in a manner that doesn't confer respect.

Here are my suggestions and I'm sure there are super sensitive people who would disagree with them. If there's a dozen white people in a room and one black person, I'm not going to tiptoe around the easiest and most obvious identifier; I will however, try to show a little bit more respect and use the term black gentleman. For example,

I don't remember your colleague's name, but he was the black gentleman at the managerial department.

Or, you can lessen the impact of identifying someone strictly by skin color by using other identifiers in addition:

I don't recall your colleague's name; he wears glasses and has a cubicle next to the water cooler; an African gentleman.

You can't please everyone but I think being mindful of respect goes a long way.

1

It is true that for some people in the UK, race is a highly inflammatory topic, unfortunately sensitivity and respect have been overridden by political correctness gone mad. Consequently, if I felt the person in front of me was setting me a trap, i.e. he or she was testing me, I would have described the person as if he were "white". I wouldn't normally start describing any caucasian as being "white", so why should I if the person happens to have a different skin colour? I'd start with their height, hair length, age, physical appearance etc.

A: Who did you talk to yesterday?

Me: [example] "I'm sorry I don't remember his name. I think it began with J, but I'm not sure. He was a tall guy, well-built, must have been in his 30s. His hair was quite short and he was wearing glasses, and a red sweater too. He had a beard, and tattoos on his forearm.

A: Ahh that sounds like Jason.

OR

A: (after listening to the brief description) Anything else?

Me: Yes, he had black skin/His skin was black.

  • @snailplane I am not making any distinction in the colour of their skin. I wouldn't normally start describing a white person as being "white", but I would start with their hair colour, age, physical appearance etc. likewise if the person being described is Asian, South American or black. In British newspapers today the term black is assiduously avoided, you only discover a person's ethnicity if a photo is printed of them, or their name is reported. Sometimes the term, muslim is used, but I believe that is being discouraged. – Mari-Lou A Sep 9 '14 at 21:42
  • "Sometimes the term, muslim is used, but I believe that is being discouraged. " - are you... are you being serious? – AakashM Sep 11 '14 at 13:27
  • @AakashM I'm sorry, I don't understand. If I'm mistaken, I'll delete the comment. – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '14 at 13:37
  • "Muslim" isn't a euphemism for "black". It really isn't. – AakashM Sep 11 '14 at 13:58
  • No, of course not. You've misunderstood me. I was talking about discrimination, racial prejudice, political correctness etc. Inasmuch as reporters will be cautious before reporting anybody's colour, creed or race. If you had lived in the 60s/70s and early 80s there was a general lack of sensitivity, if a white person committed a crime his/her skin colour was never mentioned. If the same offense was committed by a black person, that was always picked up on. Recently if a person happened to be of the muslim faith that was reported as being relevant, of significant importance. – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '14 at 14:04

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