We need to give greater weight to and be careful about the names we use to describe cultural groups.
Research now shows that receiving a name is a form of “social tagging,” as every name comes with associated expectations regarding characteristics, behaviors, and even a stereotypical “look” within a culture.
In other words, what you call someone directly impacts how you view them. The most honoring thing we can do for a person of another culture is to give them the dignity of defining themselves.
This practice takes the power and ability to place value judgments on others out of our hands and challenges us to see someone the way they want to be seen, not according to how we want to label them.
This is especially important today, as we have a wide variety of terms that people use within our society as a whole.
Should you say Native American or First Nation peoples? East Indian, South Asian, or Desi? Chicano, Latino, or Latin American? Black, African American, African, or Afro-Latino?
The fact that we have this wealth of terms reflects the diversities of peoples and their preferences for different self-identifications.
Many of us have families in different countries. This is particularly true for individuals with bicultural and multicultural identities. Our ethnic heritages are mixed.
For example, I have both Indian and British/German heritage. I have friends who are part Black and part Asian or part Asian and part Latino and many other combinations in between.
We are often misidentified because of our mixed traits.
It’s important that people never assume that someone’s phenotype is a direct giveaway of their ethnicity.
Though I may have lighter skin than some other Indians, I resonate with my Indian cultural identity more than my European heritage—partly because of the traditions and foods that formed me while growing up, but also because people have always treated me as a brown-skinned minority woman.
Every person defines their cultural identity differently based on the narratives they resonate with most.
Many first-generation immigrants in the United States identify with their country of origin. They refer to themselves simply as El Salvadorian, Burmese, Colombian, Dominican, or Chinese.
Second- and third-generation immigrants and beyond, on the other hand, often begin to claim more racialized American categories like Latino, Asian American, or Black.
We understand the way race in America works, and we change our identification to reflect that. Our identity is, nevertheless, still quite diverse.
This is why it’s still important to understand the distinctions between terms like Latino, Hispanic, and Latinx.
They’re often used interchangeably to describe a group that makes up about 18 percent of the US population and with ties to over twenty different Latin American countries.
The term Hispanic was created in a census by the US government in 1980. It’s not a term that Spanish-speakers created for themselves, which is why my husband, for example, always prefers to be called Mexican American and never Hispanic.
At the same time, many persons of Mexican descent reject the term Mexican American as something imposed on them and call themselves Chicanos instead. There are complicated histories at work here, and each person engages with these histories differently.
The same is true for the term Black. An Afro-Colombian may prefer to never be called Black, while a quarter of all Latinos in the United States self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, or of African descent with roots in Latin America.
Speaking of terms, Asian American was a label created by Asian American activists and organizers in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a way to disassociate from the white American imposed term oriental, and many today embrace Asian American as a positive and empowering form of identification.
But never forget that the Asian American population in the United States is estimated to be between twenty and twenty-two million.
We represent forty-eight different countries in Asia as well as an Asian diaspora around the world, speaking hundreds of languages collectively. We are distinct and diverse. No matter who you are trying to connect with, always be as local and specific as you can.
Remember: what is true for one person may not be true for another.
Every single person will prefer a different term that reflects their specific cultural narrative.
The best thing to do is ask. Then honor that person by using the term they use, regardless of whether it fits with your preprogrammed categories.