Sitting in Café Mac the other day, I was discussing my encounter with a “30-year-old black man,” when I suddenly noticed I was being glared at by a few students at surrounding tables. I guessed that “30-year-old” was not the trigger for the widened eyes of resentment, so I quickly began to build a case for why my use of “black” was justified (and why I wasn’t a totally ignorant idiot who doesn’t belong at Mac).
Although contested, there is a distinction between race, ethnicity and nationality. Race refers to groups of people, which are based on physical characteristics. While “black” is sometimes seen as politically incorrect, I cannot think of another term that truly has the same meaning.
When I say “black,” I am not referring to African Americans, because I mean to include black foreigners as well as Americans.
Furthermore, I would not say “descendants of sub-Saharan Africa” because first, there are Caucasians who have had family in Africa for hundreds of years, second, aren’t we all descendants of Africa anyway? And third, the term is too long and unnecessary to describe a characteristic that can be replaced by the simple well-understood term “black.”
Another defining feature, ethnicity, is based on similar culture. The term Hispanic, which describes a person connected to the people, culture, or language of Spain, is used to describe ethnicity. Nationality is related to the country to which one belongs. “American” is an example of nationality.
I’d also like to argue that it’s OK to mention someone’s race when giving a description. Let’s face it, 66 percent of the student body in 2012 identified itself as white—2.8 percent (not including international students) identified itself as black.
If someone is attempting to point out a friend of color amongst a group of 10 white students, it’s unnecessary and even awkward to limit the description to “Oh he’s the guy with dark brown hair” or “He’s wearing a blue T-shirt.” If there’s truly no stigma to being black, white, Asian (what I identify as), or whatever you may be, then there shouldn’t be any more embarrassment in identifying with those terms than there is with descriptors such as short, blond-haired, or green-eyed.
Of course, it’s important to be respectful about others’ feelings towards race. It’s also OK to ask someone what he or she prefers to be called. If someone asked me, I would probably say it doesn’t matter (Asian, Asian-American, etc), as long as that person had good intentions. However, to others it might matter, and that’s also OK. Being politely direct about race allows people to break down the awkward barriers that make people cringe whenever someone starts a sentence with “Every Asian” even if it ends with something like “drinks water.”