How do you refer to a US-born American of European descent?

The context is that someone is describing a woman who's since become a Japanese citizen, so it's relevant to mention it so people don't think the woman is of Japanese descent.

The person describing the woman used the term "European American". I don't hear the term very often compared to "African-American", so I was unsure if it's the most normal term to use.

Doing a Google search for "European American" gave me a hit for Wikipedia, which probably isn't suitable as it tends to use an academic tone. Urban Dictionary was another hit, but it had a variety of opinions, which probably was the result of the contributors' political leanings rather than an unbiased description. There was also a hit for a white supremacist site, and a couple of sites unrelated to the term, referring to relations between the USA and Europe.

I have a suspicion that some people not only regard people of European descent as the most common group, but the "default" group, such that you only need to mention a person's ethnicity if they're not of European descent. If so, it would explain why I haven't heard the term "European American" much.

What term, if any, should be used in American English in the context of an ordinary non-academic diary entry?

  • 1
    You are more likely to find "(specific European country) American" rather than "European American". Which ones and how often depends on historical context and how well such groups assimilated into American society. In any case, heritage is not the same as legal status, so a two part phrase is needed; in your example "Japanese citizen of European American descent."
    – user3169
    Dec 13, 2015 at 2:43
  • What info is this term supposed to convey? Skin color? Ethnicity? The country from which some or all of the person's ancestor's came over to the US?
    – TimR
    Dec 13, 2015 at 13:54

3 Answers 3


European American is, as the OP suggests, the default, but in the case of an American becoming a Japanese citizen, most people would probably assume it was a Japanese-American.

I'm also assuming the speaker didn't know if the woman was (say) Polish-American or whatever, so that was not an option although it probably would have been best.

She could have said "a white American" or "a Caucasian American," but Americans can be very touchy about race so in this situation I think "a European American" was actually a good solution even though it is not commonly used.


Since America is a melting pot of nationalities, among people whose origins are outside the US (and basically we all are), those who are of:

German descent
Japanese descent
Chinese descent
Irish descent

will refer to themselves as :

German American
Japanese American
Chinese American
Irish American

Only tourists in America might say they are European, if they do not name the specific country they are from.

So the woman in question could be referred to as a:

German American Japanese

since she is of American origin with German ancestry and is now a Japanese citizen. Please note the usual ordering of the descriptors, from most distant to most recent.

The naming of origins has become increasingly difficult as people travel, settle, and intermarry more extensively. People who have greater than two ancestries would typically list their origins – part Irish, part Scottish, and part Polish – and at times may state the percentages involved.

First generation immigrants (the people that first immigrated to America) might continue to be referred to as Germans (as well as German Americans), whereas the second generation would simply be called German American.

In AmE, Indians might still be used for the current, more favourable Native Americans, the people who were in America before the Europeans arrived. This should not be confused with Indians from the subcontinent. In BrE, Indians from the subcontinent are referred to as Asians, whereas in AmE Asians refer to people from China, Japan, Vietnam, etc., the countries which traditionally were referred to as Oriental but no longer for political correctness.

[NB: It is incredibly difficult to obtain Japanese citizenship if one is not born in Japan.]

  • The person doing the describing isn't the woman of European descent.
    – Golden Cuy
    Dec 13, 2015 at 2:39
  • Isn't the woman, who is now a Japanese citizen, the woman in question? You did not give the sex of the person doing the describing.
    – Peter
    Dec 13, 2015 at 2:44
  • No. One woman was describing another woman. Amazing coincidence!
    – Golden Cuy
    Dec 13, 2015 at 2:56
  • My answer was referring to the woman who obtained Japanese citizenship, not the person doing the describing. BTW, I still don't see where the person doing the describing is female: "someone is describing a woman", "the person describing the woman"... have I missed something?
    – Peter
    Dec 13, 2015 at 11:42

I would say "American expat, now a Japanese citizen." It's really hard to specify European descent, as you've seen.

  • If anyone would like to give their reason for down voting, I'd much appreciate it. Dec 13, 2015 at 8:04

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