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In English, for instance, I might refer to "black people," "white people," "Asians" or "Asian people," etc. These are not offensive terms. I might describe a person as "white," "black," "Latino," "Asian," "Caucasian," or otherwise by their specific nationality.

How is this done in French? How can I refer to a group of people, or describe a single person, in an ordinary and not offensive way?

At the same time, what common ways of referring to people would be considered offensive, that I might recognize them when I see them? For instance, in English of course words like negro/blackie/honky/chink are considered offensive.

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You have to know, that, in the official French doctrine (in metropolitan France), there are no races, and skin colours should be officially ignored. I´d avoid referring to races and skin colours in Metropolitan France when it´s not related to the topic of the current conversation.

Asians (Chinese, Vietnames, Thai, Japanese etc looking people) can be referred as "de type asiatique" (something I would avoid if I´m dressing these people). You can also say "de type Vietnamien/Coréen/Chinois" if you can tell for sure.

North-Africans are often referred to as "Arabes" or "Maghrebins" (I avoid using "Maghrebin" when talking to an Arab because it is implying he or she is an Algerian, a Tunisian, or a Morroccan citizen). The police uses the expression "de type Nord-Africain".

Using "verlan" crypto-slang (obtained by mixing the syllabs of a word) is often considered correct in informal speech, for example among youngsters : Arab = arabe -> Beur/Rebeu , Black = Noir -> renoi. I wouldn´t use it, but it isn´t considered offensive on the street or among friends or young people. Some people use the word "Black" to avoid saying "noir".

We don´t really use any word for Hispanic people, as they are basically whites (sometimes one can say "de type sud-américain").

Sometimes you can hear old people talking about Nègres and Négresses in a non-offensive way (until WWII it was the main word). Some african intellectuals in the 1970s aroung Senghor used it extensively in the context of the "Négritude" movement.

As far as I know, in the French Antillas, it´s not offensive to talk about someone being a Métis, Mulâtre, Quateron, Béké (White Creoles, stereotyped as rich and inbred), etc. But it is a very specific social context.

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Cela est passé d'usage, mais espingouin pour les espagnols (venus en France pendant la dictature de Franco) ; portos pour les portugais, rital pour les italiens, deux pays qui ont envoyé beaucoup de main d’œuvre en France durant le XXe siècle - Il y aussi les bananes (jaune dehors et blanc dedans) : personnes qui ont un physique asiatique et une mentalité française, voire franchouillarde ; de même forêt noire pour les africains, en référence à un gâteau crémeux blanc enrobé de chocolat noir. –  cl-r Jul 31 at 19:41

I would personally try to avoid referring to people by the colour of their skin. That alone can be considered a bit rude both in French and English. The basic "non-offensive" way would be to use the colour for black/white and the region for others (noirs, blancs, latinos, asiatiques). It would still be better to call people by their nationality but I understand that is not always possible.

As for offensive ways to call these people : nègre would be horrible obviously. For latinos, none come to mind and for asians some people will call them "yellow" (jaune) which is highly offensive.

From what I have seen so far, French does not differ so much from English on the description of races if you know the literal translations.

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I agree with you, I'll just add that if you want to be politically correct, avoid to describe someone using a region noun, such as "l'asiatique". Instead, use "il est de type asiatique" or "il est typé asiatique". It sounds more polite to me! –  Flugueubluck Jul 29 at 8:21
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The reflection came to me a few days ago: most French would rather call a black person "un Black" than "un Noir" in an informal context. The last person I heard using that word was my grandfather and it was heavy with contempt. –  Elena Mellor Jul 29 at 8:54
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I don't an offensive term for "latino" but Spanish people are often called "Espingouin" in a derogatory way. –  Elena Mellor Jul 29 at 9:35
    
"Un black" is not good french. It's also most probably only a local expression. Same goes for "espingouin" which I have never heard in Canada. –  Alexandre P. Levasseur Jul 29 at 10:38
    
"Un black" and "espingouin" are much used all over France, though I do agree the first is absolutely not grammatically correct. –  Elena Mellor Jul 29 at 12:42

There are offensive term for various groups (i.e. Jews, Brits, Germans, North Africans, probably Eastern Europeans...), but I'm not familiar with European terms besides rital (Italian), which I'm pretty sure is offensive. Generally, Alexandre's comment is sound.

On this side of the Atlantic (I'm from Quebec), a recent pejorative term has arisen to describe visible minorities (though these days it's most often leveled at the various Muslim ethnic groups): ethnique, used as a noun.

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Rital is not offensive (it is not an insult nor a pejorative word), but it is a familiar word and as such it can be interpreted in an offensive way by people you don´t know. It´s not a word to use in a lobby or in a business reunion, if you see what I mean. –  Yves Jul 29 at 12:21

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