English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Should I say that "Will is white" or "Will is a white" or "Will is a white person" to refer to his race?

Also, is it considered acceptable to say someone is black or white in a college paper?

share|improve this question
I think this is Not Constructive, in that different people will have different ideas about what terms are acceptable in what contexts. And it's Off Topic because it's not about English as such - it's about social attitudes/customs/etiquette. – FumbleFingers Oct 26 '12 at 3:09
I agree. This is about political correctness, not grammar. – Roaring Fish Oct 26 '12 at 6:11
Usage is not grammar. Grammar is grammar and usage is what you say and how you say it. ELU means "English Language & Usage", not English grammar. PC language is all about usage. What's your beef? – user21497 Oct 26 '12 at 14:47

Racial labels are always problematic. First, it's necessary to understand that not everyone accepts the notion that there are races other than the human race. Some scientists insist that what are normally considered racial differences are merely trivial differences based on gene pool differences. The argument is too technical for me to make any judgments about such things. I'm no expert.

Typical everyday English conversations about human differences, however, usually include all these loaded terms about race. The terms you use can offend some people. Here's a link to a Wikipedia article about the racial terminology used for the US census. White and Black/African American are the terms used for those two putative races.

I don't think that saying "He's a {white/black/brown}" is a good idea. People don't come in only three (or a few more, like yellow and red, perhaps) colors, but in a wide variety of shades. Plus, using the indefinite article to describe a person feels like stereotyping to me.

Most of the people I talk to would say "He's {white/black}". Some will say "He's {Caucasian/European American/African American}".

In college papers, it's probably better to be more formal and politically correct, so I'd use "{European American/African American}" for Americans. For other nationalities, however, I don't know. There are probably other PC terms to use.

Some African Americans prefer to be called "African American", and some prefer to be called "black". My friends from the Caribbean (St. Kitts & Nevis and St. Vincent) call themselves "black".

I'm sure there's a lot more to say about this, but I think I've gone on long enough.

share|improve this answer

I would write:

Will is white.

Bill is black.

I would not use a, nor would I capitalise white or black. I find that both those styles call too much attention to themselves. For example, “Ming is Chinese” sounds more natural in English than “Ming is a Chinese”, and Black is not a proper noun, unless you’re referring to someone by name:

Sirius is a Black.

If a person’s race is relevant to your paper, then there is no harm in mentioning it. It’s the same as sex, height, or any other physical characteristic.

share|improve this answer
But "Ming is Chinese" describes nationality. If Dennis is born in the UK to emigre parents from Hong Kong [say] would it be wrong to describe him as "a Chinese" as a shorthand for "of Chinese extraction"? Because of the ambiguity with nationality, Chinese is different from white/black. – Andrew Leach Oct 26 '12 at 6:10
@AndrewLeach: If you listen carefully to the rhetoric from the leaders of the PRC, you'll hear them quite clearly assert that anyone who looks Chinese & is genetically Chinese is Chinese. It's quite racist rhetoric. That's what they tell the Taiwanese: "We are all Chinese." And ethnic Chinese who are born, raised, and live overseas are called "Overseas Chinese", e.g., the Chinese community in Indonesia. The Indonesians see them as Chinese -- a "race" -- & the PRC sees them as Chinese -- a "race" -- not as Indonesians, their nationality. – user21497 Oct 26 '12 at 15:04

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.