I had a conversation recently where someone was deathly afraid of referring to a person by their skin color. It went something like this:

Coworker: One of the people on the other team came by and said he wanted talk with you.

Me: What was his name?

Coworker: I don't remember. He was kind of tall and had short hair.

Me: Not sure who it was. What else?

Coworker: He was at Mary's retirement party and gave a speech.

Me: Still not sure.

Coworker: [leans in and whispers] He's black.

The coworker clearly thought it was inappropriate to refer to the person as "black", but felt it necessary to say because no other descriptors were working. They couldn't have referred to this person as "African American", since they just moved from the Caribbean (the person forgot what country they were from, but knew it wasn't Africa).

What would be the proper way to refer to a person with dark brown skin who is not African American?

This is in the United States. If regional differences matter, this is the Midwest (Ohio), and I'd like to know if it is different in different parts of the country.

  • 14
    I would hazard to guess that your coworker's discomfort wasn't due to saying "black" but due to having to resort to mentioning the man's race at all... but that's not what you're asking here. :)
    – Catija
    Aug 11, 2017 at 19:55
  • 6
    It's difficult for anyone. I've seen many discussions of it over the years - what terms to use... and which terms are preferable aren't even unanimous within a group. As you point out, "African-American" has problems when it comes to non-Americans (though the Caribbean is part of "the Americas") but also because it makes it sounds like they're a subcategory of American rather than a full American. I'm "Italian", not "Italian-American" but I'm not from Italy.
    – Catija
    Aug 11, 2017 at 20:37
  • 2
    You're asking the wrong question unfortunately... if I was your co-worker, the reason your I wouldn't want to say it aloud is not that I don't know what the correct term is, but rather I don't want to be thought of as racist for using the person's skin colour as an identifying characteristic. I would never think to use "white" as something to help identify Dave, and so I feel uncomfortable that I notice that Stuart is black.
    – AndyT
    Aug 31, 2017 at 10:59
  • 7
    @AndyT What's the problem? Skin color is the most easily identifiable characteristic. It's no more "racist" than using hair color or beard shape for identification of a person.
    – FiatLux
    Jul 19, 2018 at 14:45
  • 8
    @AndyT Well, if he is the only white person in a company, then you surely would use this parameter to identify him. You don't think of it because you usually have more than one white guy to choose from, don't you? In this case this characteristic is not particularly useful indeed. So, no, it is not racial discrimination, you are overthinking it too much.
    – FiatLux
    Jul 20, 2018 at 9:12

8 Answers 8


Use black (adjective, the color) itself to describe the person, if absolutely necessary, i.e. black person or dark-skinned or dark-complexioned.

Never refer to them or address them as a black (noun). And completely avoid terms like negro, nigger, colored etc.

An example from BBC News.

Benedict Cumberbatch has apologised after using the term "coloured" to describe black actors. He was on a US talk show, explaining that there are more opportunities for black actors in Hollywood than the UK.

I say this from my Indian perspective, and experience otherwise having been to many countries.

Too much "political correctness" will only lead to more confusion, problems, and does more harm than good.

  • 12
    This is just my experience, but I see "politically correct" used in a pejorative sense more times than in a neutral sense. Just a comment on some of your wording.
    – HDE 226868
    Aug 11, 2017 at 19:28
  • @HDE226868 I'm aware, and hence the scare quotes on it.
    – NVZ
    Aug 31, 2017 at 8:18
  • so saying "the black" is offensive and saying "the black dude" is okay? (just for clarification)
    – anon
    Sep 7, 2017 at 7:48
  • 2
    @SomeRandomCat Yes, it is generally considered offensive to refer to people as e.g. "the black" or "the gays." There's an ELU post about it somewhere but I can't find it. Oct 24, 2017 at 22:45

In the situation you're in, where the point is to use a distinguishing feature to describe the person and you can reasonably trust that they have some African heritage, the best term is "black". This is, by no means, unanimous. You will find some people who feel that any distinguishing of a person by their appearance is inappropriate. Sometimes, however, it becomes at least useful to be able to do this. You may also be better able to use the term as one of several -

The person I saw was a beautiful, tall, black woman with long, straightened hair.

Note, it's one thing if you're talking about them to someone else. It's another to use this term for them when you're around them. The best person to ask this question - is your coworker. If you inform yourself, you'll be better able to share your information and avoid offending them.

For some levity in a generally serious situation, I'm going to call on our friends at Saturday Night Live who, just this week, briefly addressed this in a special summer "Weekend Update" in a commentary to the NAACP. At the very beginning of this segment, Michael Che, a black comedian, speaks:

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has issued its first ever travel advisory. Warning people of color of discrimination in Missouri. First of all, NAACP, stop calling us "colored people". We picked a color a long time ago - it's "black", okay?

While I don't think that Michael Che speaks for the entirety of people of African descent, he's got a loud voice.

As I said before, some people think that these words are inappropriate and that colors how people act because they don't want to sound racist. I'm going to guess that this contingent is why your coworker acted the way they did. When you read things like this article on The Spectator, it makes it difficult to know how to describe someone who is black. I'll note that this is from the point of view of a white British male.

Apparently the correct term in the USA is not even ‘black’, but ‘people of colour’. Forgive me, but there is no meaningful semantic difference between ‘people of colour’ and ‘coloured people’. Why does one offend, then, when the other does not? Isn’t this a case of confected outrage and manufactured sensitivity?

The other problem with "people of color" is that it means "anyone not white", which isn't useful to describe a black person in your situation. If your coworker said "person of color", they could be talking about someone who is Asian, Hispanic, Indian... anything non-white.

I found an interesting discussion with a story nearly identical to yours, though asking a different question:

I understand why White people do this–fear of being labeled as a Racist. My question is, does it really offend Black people if someone describes them as Black? Or is that just White people’s perception?

One responder, Emmaline, makes this related remark:

I use the term "Black" because not everyone identifies as African --even if their primary ancestors may have originated from Africa, their family has lived for many generations in the Caribbean Islands, for example, and only identify with that culture.

Someone else, sativaah responds to this

People of Color (POC)

... There are a lot of opinions in that thread, so you have a lot to consider from a variety of people.

  • Do you have a link to the thread you are referencing?
    – eirikdaude
    Aug 29, 2017 at 15:08
  • @eirikdaude Whoops! Just realized that I forgot to include it. Editing!
    – Catija
    Aug 29, 2017 at 15:09

Dilute the term's perceived offensiveness by making it part of an accurate description:

"You know, Tom is the about 6'1" dark-brown guy, short hair, round glasses, favors black suits, handles customer X in the other team, etc"

Note: only mention positives, if he has a gut, is anoying, or stuff like that, sweep it under the rug.

Now if you have two persons in your team who fit the description down to skin tone, clothes and everything and one looks Indian and the other looks more African, then you're gonna have to use the appropriate term, stop beating around the bush... Unless the Indian is called Rajesh Koothrapali, in which case mentioning the name should suffice. But if the name is John Smith, some information would be missing...

Don't ever use the word "People of color", you will sound like a clown, unless you are a statistician and want to define a demographic in a study or something.

  • 2
    Good answers are more than suggestions. Explain why your advice is worth following.
    – user288
    Aug 30, 2017 at 14:38
  • Anyway, "People of colour" sounds weird if you try to describe a single person.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 19, 2018 at 22:08

The term I would use in such a situation is "dark." That is a catchall term that includes Africans, most Asians, Middle Easterners, and even Europeans from the Mediterranean countries (Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.) basically anyone who isn't of northern or western European background.

Because it is such a broad term, it is less offensive than "black" or "yellow" or "redskin," etc.

In this case, it is also possible to refer to your "dark" friend as a "Caribbean," which identifies his culture, and is actually more important than the color of his skin.

  • Caribbean would have been a good alternative, but the coworker did not remember his nationality at the time. Aug 12, 2017 at 15:05
  • @Thunderforge: Fair enough. This is a "for next time" observation.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 12, 2017 at 15:07

By Name, Role, or Title

The correct way to refer to someone you work with is by name, or by their title if they have a distinct title.

Any time you start describing someone by their appearance in a professional setting you are opening yourself up to having what you say misconstrued or unintentionally reveal your biases(real or perceived). Instead go for non-divisive descriptors like their name, role, title etc.

In this case, when the coworker came by your friend should have said something like "I am sorry I do not remember your name." Or "I am not sure ill be around how about leaving him a message from my note pad." Either one of these avoids that unfortunate exchange.

When someone starts trying to describe someone to you, it's best to try to ask questions that lead them away from physical descriptions. The reason is there is always the potential that the person will describe them using some characteristic that may seem, to someone just overhearing that part, inappropriate. Your being part of that conversation may result in sensitivity training, or even some sort of censure at work like a written warning for harassment.

So after the first exchange where the coworker tried to use a physical description I would have asked specific questions like:

  • What team are they on?
  • What do they do?
  • Who do they work with?

These questions are likely to be more useful than any physical description anyway.


Your question title is somewhat confusing in that 'someone with dark brown skin who is not African American' can possibly be interpreted as a somewhat dark person not from African ancestry (such as Indians from India, which is what I am) but that is is not what you refer to in the explanation of your question.

If you really mean 'how to describe a dark-skin-color individual of African origin who is from neither Africa nor America but the Caribbean', then there is a term called Afro-Caribbean which means exactly that person. See the many descriptions and definitions of the word here:


If the person is from Africa you can call them African which refers to the continent and if they are actually from India you call them Indian.

  • 2
    But how do you know what to call them if you don't know their origin.
    – user4548
    Nov 14, 2017 at 19:09
  • If you don't know their origin (whether Africa or the Caribbean) then the only option is the generic term 'black person' as suggested by the accepted answer here, to indicate a person of African ancestry. If even that is not known, then all that is left is 'dark person!' Nov 14, 2017 at 20:40
  • 3
    "Not African American" also applies to someone who is African and never became an American citizen.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 19, 2018 at 22:04

I use every other term other than skin color or ethnicity to describe a person. As a matter of fact, I haven't had to use skin color as a physical descriptor since I was young and didn't know any better. If it really is difficult to distinguish between two people on the basis of location, role, clothing, height or weight, I describe eye color and hair color/quality. For hair quality, I never use the term "nappy" which is derogatory.

  • 2
    "I'm a white guy " in the first sentence and "I use every other term other than skin color or ethnicity to describe a person" seems to be a contradiction to me.
    – miracle173
    Sep 17, 2018 at 17:48
  • 1
    @miracle173 How would you suggest that I reference the fact that I have white privilege and so may not be qualified to suggest what may be offensive to people who don't have white privilege?
    – empty
    Sep 17, 2018 at 17:57

This is a question that may not have a "single correct answer".

There have been a few different iterations of what is/was politically correct, or socially acceptable, over the years.

It seems, at the moment, POC or Person of Color is an acceptable term in academic and activist circles.

The term "person of color" (plural: people of color, persons of color; sometimes abbreviated POC) is used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white. The term encompasses all non-white peoples, emphasizing common experiences of systemic racism. The term may also be used with other collective categories of people such as "communities of color", "men of color", and "women of color".

  • 3
    This is accurate but if the point is to describe the person this description applies to someone who is black, Asian, Hispanic.... etc, etc.
    – Catija
    Aug 12, 2017 at 1:28

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