Racial Category Terms

The labels and definitions of racial and ethnic categories vary across history, societies, and even situations. Presented here are common terms used at UW-Madison, as well as some clarifications about racial and ethnic terms in the U.S. context.

Terms at UW-Madison

“Students of Color”

There are different racial and ethnic minority groups on campus. They are often grouped together under the term “students of color.” UW-Madison’s Multicultural Student Center provides one definition of this term:

“We utilize the phrase “Students of Color (SOC)” to intentionally include students who may identify as Black, African-American, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, Latinx, Chicanx, Native American, and multiracial.”

Note that students who could fit under the term “students of color” are heterogenous in the terms they prefer. Some students of color have no preference in what they are called, other students of color may prefer or be more accustomed to the terms “non-white” or “racial minority.” On the other hand, some students find “students of color” to be more positive than “non-white,” which defines people based on what they are not. Other students find “students of color” to be more similar to how they think of their own identity compared to “racial minority,” which defines people based on a statistical status.

“Underrepresented” or “Targeted Racial Minority”

Another racial term you may hear is “underrepresented racial minority” or “targeted racial minority.” This has a particular, institutional meaning at UW-Madison. Here’s a definition from a report by UW-Madison:

“Some services for minority students at UW‐Madison target students from specific racial/ethnic groups that have historically been disadvantaged in higher education. These groups are African Americans, Hispanic/Latino(a)s, American Indians, and Southeast Asians (Asians and their descendants who came to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand) who are defined by Wisconsin Statute and typically referred to as targeted minorities.”

Racial Category Terms in the U.S.

Offensive term: Negro

Instead use: African American; black

The term Negro has not always been considered offensive. Hence, prominent organizations like the United Negro College Fund, which was founded in 1944, contain the word. But during the 1950s and 1960s, black leaders and others in the black community objected to the word Negro because of its use during slavery and Jim Crow segregation, periods in which African Americans were treated as second-class (or non) citizens.

Instead of saying someone is Negro or referring to them as a Negro, you can refer to them as an African American or as black or as a black person (or a black woman, a black man, a black student, etc.). But keep in mind that black and African American are not completely interchangeable. A black person who is not an American is not an African American. For example, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is black, but he’s not African American.

The term Negro is still used and considered non-offensive in some historical contexts. In addition to the United Negro College Fund, other historical references like “negro spirituals” and “Negro Leagues” (baseball leagues that existed in the first half of the 20th century) are considered non-offensive.

Offensive term: Colored

Instead use: Person of color

The term colored, much like the term Negro, is considered offensive due to its use during a time when African Americans were treated as non- or second class citizens, by both custom and law. This hasn’t always been the case, which is why the NAACP, founded in 1909, contains the word colored in its name (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Instead of referring to someone as colored or a colored person, you can refer to them as a person of color (or a woman of color, a man of color, a student of color, etc.). However, while colored was a term that was used in the past specifically to refer to black people, today person of color can be used to refer to any non-white person or group.

Here is a useful resource for dispelling specifically the use of the term ‘colored people’ and promoting the use of ‘people of color’ in the classroom produced by NPR’s Code Switch. Reviewing the history of the terminology with students in the classroom may be more useful to help them retain that knowledge, rather than simply correcting use of ‘colored people’ during discussion.

Offensive term: Mulatto

Instead use: Biracial; multiracial; mixed-race; multi-ethnic

The term mulatto is also considered offensive today due to its history of use during American slavery and in the decades after the fall of slavery during which African Americans did not have the full legal rights of citizenship. The term is also considered offensive because it is believed to be derived from the Latin word mūlus, which means the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey, and thus has connotations that equate humans to animals and human reproduction to animal breeding. Historically, the term has been used most often in the U.S. to refer to persons of mixed African and European ancestry, though it has also been used at different historical moments to refer to persons of mixed Native American and European ancestry, persons of mixed Native American and black ancestry, and persons of mixed Hispanic and European ancestry.

Today, instead of the word mulatto, you can refer to someone with known ancestry from more than one racial group as biracial (if they happen to have ancestry from two racial groups), multi-racial, mixed-race, or multi-ethnic.

Offensive term: Illegal alien

Instead use: Undocumented or unregistered resident/immigrant

The term illegal alien is still used today by some people, including some members of the media, but many other people consider it offensive. The term is typically used to describe immigrants who are not in compliance with immigration regulations or policies.

Instead of illegal or illegal alien, you can say undocumented resident or undocumented immigrant. When describing an undocumented resident who is younger than about 35, especially if they were brought to the U.S. when they were younger than 18, the preferred term is Dreamer.

The term illegal alien isn’t only offensive, it is also inaccurate. We call acts in violation of criminal law “illegal.” Violations of civil law, which immigration policy is a part of, are not called “illegal.” Calling an undocumented immigrant “illegal” is synonymous with calling someone who speeds while driving a “criminal.” (It would be more accurate, though not advised, to refer to someone as illegal if they consume alcohol while under the age of 21, or use a fake ID to gain entry to a bar, as these are both criminal offenses.) Alien is also a dehumanizing and othering term. It is, however, the term used in immigration law and policy.