Personal Identifiers and Common Misunderstandings

Terms like African-American, Black, Latino, HIspanic, American and the like are commonly used and almost universally misunderstood. The issues actually boil down to several elements that include geographic, country, racial, language and cultural origins. Delineating these separately leads to a greater understanding of personal identifiers. Importantly, personal identifiers that segregate are frequently less nebulous and more accurate than societal designations that tend to aggregate. Using personal identifiers correctly is less likely to insult others and to make one look insensitive or ignorant.

First, geographic origins is used predominately by African-Americans and Asians. African-Americans use this term since they are decedents of freed American slaves and do no know their African countries of origin. Europeans, Asians, etc. are from a country from that continents and are only occasionally used as personal identifiers. Of note, the North American continent contains Canada, the United States and Mexico. Therefore, Canadians and Mexicans are North Americans or “Americans” also.

Next, is the country of origin. When the country of origin is known then it is used such as Kenyan-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American, Cuban-American, Jamaican, etc.

Third, is race. Traditionally, there have been several human races although these designations have come into dispute. These are usually noted as “Black”, “Asian”, “Native”, “White” or Caucasian or mixed.

Finally, there is culture and language of origin. These usually are Latino for someone from the Western Hemisphere whose language is Latin based (Spanish, Portuguese or French) and Hispanics are people from this Hemisphere whose language is Spanish.

Personal identifiers are usually combinations of these items and some have common usage. For example, technically “African-American” would include white South Africans who have recently settled in North American. Instead the are South African-American since their country of origin is known. If it were not other for personal and political gain, Obama would probably identify himself as Kenyan-American. As noted, African-American is reserved for decedents of freed American slaves.

Latinos are from North (i.e., Mexico), Central and South Americas and many Caribbean Islands where the languages spoken are Latin based. As noted, these languages include Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Hispanics are from all Spanish speaking countries in North American (Mexico), Central and South America and Caribbean Islands. It excludes Brazil where Portuguese is spoken and the French speaking Caribbean Islands.

Next is cultural origins. There are to many cultures to note. These include indigenous and identifiable peoples in most countries.

Lets examine some examples. The Chinese-Cuban minority are decedent from Chinese who immigrated to Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century. They are Caribbean, Latino, Hispanic and Asian. Those who immigrated to the US after Fidel Castro’s takeover are Chinese-Cuban-Americans.

There are many Caribbean, Latino, Hispanic Blacks from the Caribbean and South America. Many Jamaicans, Dominican Republican and Brazilians have these identifiers.

Immigrants from Brazil will be South American, Latino (NOT Hispanic), Brazilian-American and then Black, Asian, Native, White or mixed.

An immigrant from Mexico is North American, Latino, Hispanic, Mexican-American and most likely White, Native or mixed. Then there are first, second, and so on generation.

Assimilation of immigrants in the US is the rule but rarely complete. There are always cultural vestiges albeit language is usually not one of them after the first generation. Those who identify themselves usually use accurate terms are noted above.

White Americans frequently misuse terms by calling all Blacks “African-Americans” even if recent immigrants, all immigrants from South of the US border Latino or Hispanic although not totally accurate. Many of them use Hispanic to be synonymous with Mexican-American which mis-identifies those from Central and South American countries. Rather than being “politically correct” they are showing cultural, geographic and racial insensitivity or just plain ignorance.

The best practice is to ask someone what their origins are. They will almost always respond with the terms they like to use for themselves.

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