As a European, I am confused about the use of names for ethnicities in the US. The background of my question is academic (I usually work with quantitative data on ethnicity on other continents, mostly about self-determination organizations and parties) so it does not matter how poeple self-identify. For example, I gathered that only certain people are considered to be native Americans. But are terms like "Asian American" colloquial, or does it refer to the Asian continent? What about people from Hawaii or Puerto Rico?

  • 2
    Since you’re trying to interpret statistical data, I’m guessing you’re interested in the official definitions used by census and government sources, right? I’m also unsure what you mean asking about HI and PR. Are you asking whether the definition for “Asian” is different in HI vs the rest of the US, or whether people from HI are considered to be Asian, regardless of their race?
    – divibisan
    Dec 7, 2021 at 16:06
  • 4
    It is difficult to understand what you are trying to ask. Hawaii and Puerto Rico are quite different and it is hard to see what you're asking about these two. They can be easily called a Hawaiian or Puerto Rican, much like a Texan, New Yorker, or Minnesotan. Are you asking for a list of ethnicities in the US? If not, then please clearly spell out the terms you are seeking clarification on.
    – David S
    Dec 7, 2021 at 16:28
  • 1
    It sounds like you might be confusing Puerto Rico, which is close to the south of the mainland USA, with Guam, which is sort of close to continental Asia.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 7, 2021 at 17:41
  • 1
    "For example, I gathered that only certain people are considered to be [X]" well, this is true for any X. Can you clarify what is confusing you? We can't write up page on each ethnic identity without knowing what is troublingyou. Dec 7, 2021 at 19:47
  • 1
    I lived in the US for 28 years, and I'm still confused with multiple choice ethnicity questionnaires that are usually included in all kind of forms. The most recent choice of ethnicity, when applying for a COVID PCR test: 1. Hispanic. 2. Non-hispanic. 3. Other. 4. Prefer not to answer. This challenges not only my perception of what an ethnicity is, but also of aristotelean logic, because, apparently, one can be neither hispanic nor non-hispanic.
    – Michael
    Dec 8, 2021 at 0:09

2 Answers 2


For academic work, the terms do have definitions - managed by the Census Bureau. They do have colloquial uses, of course, but if you're looking at quantitative data then there are definitions which are sample-validated.

For Asian-American, since you specifically cite it, there's a number of geopolitical issues in play.

The Census definitions, however, may be found here, and generally will be supplied as part of the metadata for any official dataset you can find. Datasets that do not come from the government, and do not provide alternatives are extremely likely to be using these definitions (or whatever definitions from the Census Bureau are contemporary with the data collection effort - these are subject to change) in order to keep their datasets comparable to census-derived data.

  • 1
    Also worth noting that these definitions have been regularly revised every one to three censuses or so. For example, there was once a census ethnic category called "Hindu" which referred generically to South Asians regardless of religious affiliation. The biggest recent amendment has been to recognize that some one can be simultaneous in more than one racial category (as, for example, my children are).
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 7, 2021 at 22:38
  • 1
    Thank you, that clarified it. I am aware that there are multiple issues involved (geopolitics, colloquial use, linguistic chnages over time etc.) but as I said, I was searching for something like what you linked to. For example I was wondering how people from the Caucasus would be "categorized" and this helps a lot. Thanks!
    – chris
    Dec 8, 2021 at 10:16

Deciding on names of ethnic groups can be a political issue. The use of language affects the way we think, and vice versa, and so people try to affect the way we think by trying to influence how we talk.

The United States is largely a society of immigrants. More than a century ago, it became common to use the place of origin with a hyphen and American to describe many immigrant groups, thereby acknowledging their American identity while drawing attention to their non-WASP-ness. The term Asian-American describes immigrants from Asia and their descendants. Note that African-American or Afro-American only slowly replaced racist slurs in many groups, and that instead of European-American there are more detailed terms like Irish-American or Italian-American.

  • Note also that there were plenty of slurs targeting say Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans. Dec 7, 2021 at 21:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .