Stop Saying “Ethnic” To Mean Nonwhite


My shout to #NationalMinorityCancerAwareness week and #NationalMinorityHealth month – a little knowledge that I think will help us be better cancer advocates, care providers, researchers, friends, family members, and anyone else in our culturally diverse world.

In the process of overhearing a friend set up a tablet, I asked, “Why is the [digital assistant’s] name Cortana? … Shouldn’t it be something faster to say like Siri on my iPad?”

“It’s because she’s ethnic!” he said, raising his eyebrows at me as he dropped that punchline.

Irritating. Even more so, because the guy was mixed race, I was new to this social scene, and I had already tolerated two days of him saying ethnic this and ethnic that.

I suppose I could’ve seized that teachable moment to educate this guy, spit back something witty, suggest that maybe he doesn’t mean to say that and do him a solid by explaining why. But I was tired, and it was my weekend off. Besides, people are responsible for their own education. It’s not the job of racially conscious people to be a walking diversity training and educate everyone else on how not to embarrass their own fool selves. He was privileged with higher education, and could learn for himself that every single person has an ethnic identity, even though popular media often ignore this fact, and only use “ethnic” to refer to minority groups.

All I could do was roll my “ethnic” eyes, and later vent WTF to my racially conscious friends – who by the way, include some spooky smart White folks (so that’s no excuse).

The reason why this use of the word ethnic was irritating to me in this instance and offensive to me and many other folks in others, is that what he was really trying to say in shorthand was that the name Cortana was Nonwhite. This use of “ethnic” as a catchall for all things Nonwhite is a harmful White ethnocentric perspective.

In a July 2015 Washington Post article, Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor of food studies said the term “ethnic food” is used as a way to signify “a certain kind of inferiority,” further explaining that we use the descriptor “ethnic” for “a category of things we don’t know much about, don’t understand much about and yet find it valid to express opinions about.”

Of course, not everyone wants to get it in the social realm, because getting it means no more “ethnic food,” “ethnic hair,” or “ethnic (fill in whatever inferior Nonwhite thing you’re getting at here),” and no more cheap shots for a laugh. It’s much easier to excuse it all as jokes and protect ignorance.

However, as advocates of equal cancer care for all patients and anyone who cares about treating everyone with respect, we must load up on cultural humility and get it. For example, it makes sense to say “ethnic minority patients,” but “ethnic patients?” … I wouldn’t do that.

Here’s why, according to Universities Scotland’s Race Equality Toolkit:

“Ethnic” means “relating to or characteristic of a human group having certain key features in common.” It is derived from the Greek “ethnos” meaning a (non-Greek) “race” or people. Though apparently neutral at one level of definition, “ethnic” as a term does, in practice, in such phrases as “ethnic food,” “ethnic music,” or “ethnic clothes,” imply a condition of being non-normative, foreign, or quaint. It may also suggest a lack of sophistication or a tendency to the parochial in, for example, “ethnic literature.”

Maya Angelou famously said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Well, now we all know better.

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