One of the things I've learned (the hard way, may I add) is that in the USA it is very frowned upon to say that someone is black ---if anything, you say they are African-American. I do get the social factors that have led to a preference for African-American, but at the same time, there are occasions where African-American is arguably a descriptively inferior term, most notably:

  • White people of African ancestry (e.g., US-born children of white South African families).
  • Black people that lack a significant connection to America (e.g., Africans that still live in their African country).
  • Black non-Africans (e.g., several ethnic groups in South Asia).
  • Statements referring to racial features independent of geographical location (e.g., "black people have very high bone density, making them less likely to suffer fractures").

Is there a socially acceptable alternative to black and African-American that I can use in situations like these?

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    This is an area where the language is in flux, and likely will remain in flux for another 50 years (after which I hope skin color will become irrelevant). – Hot Licks Jul 26 '16 at 11:27
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    I just listened to Michelle Obama refer to her daughters as "young black women, so it can't be too frowned upon. – Cascabel Jul 26 '16 at 13:04

This is a complicated and thorny issue which seems subject to constant change and evolution.

Many people may be happy or even proud to be called "black" while others may find it offensive. Some people may dislike "African-American" as they think it makes them sound like an immigrant, or for other reasons.

Many people use the term "Person of color" now. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Person_of_color

What is more shared is that people dislike being labelled. Race is a social construct - that is to say, there may be more genetic difference between two "black" people than between a "black" person and a "white" person. They're not "races". Skin colour is real, but to put dark-skinned people from hundreds of different countries, some on opposite sides of the planet to one another, into the same category is asking for trouble.

OPINION ALERT: My own personal feeling on this is that we should stick purely to descriptions of skin colour, and thus, if necessary to do so at all, refer to someone as "dark-skinned" or "light-skinned", rather than "black" or "white", "African-American" or "caucasian" etc. Labels should be avoided wherever possible. Saying things like "A black man came into the shop" is an example of labelling which is always liable to cause offense. Just say "A man came into the shop", and if you need to describe his appearance for some reason then you could mention the skin colour, along with what he's wearing, his hairstyle, etc. There is a sort of obsession with skin colour which is born of tribalism, and we should try to move past it.

  • People from, say, Haiti take offense at African-American, for instance. Jamaicans don't really care. I live in a city with a lot of mixed-racial children, the first generation typically being dark skinned. Colloquially, nobody seems to take offense to black, but you'll occasionally see someone in the media getting all up in arms about it. – Stu W Jul 26 '16 at 12:48
  • @stuW it's definitely a common phenomenon that people outside the group in question are more concerned about the language then are the people inside the group. – Max Williams Jul 26 '16 at 12:49
  • If a fat man came into the shop, I would just say it "the fat man who came...". Can't we learn to be purely objective ? I would also say "the beautiful man/lady that came in..." which would mean a commonly accepted as beautiful by society norms man/lady came in, without implying anything else that purely external aspect. – Blue_Elephant Jul 26 '16 at 13:23
  • @Blue_Elephant It depends on who you're talking to and the formality of the speech. That might be an interesting question or study to the degree descriptive adjectives and adverbs decrease formality. A talk show would be ok with beautiful or fat, but a network news show wouldn't do it. – Stu W Jul 26 '16 at 19:20
  • There's been many many dissertations and phds written about this sort of thing - it's a huge area. Some people might take issue with the use of the word "man", gender identity being such a hot topic at the moment. – Max Williams Jul 27 '16 at 7:22

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