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.

7 Answers 7


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, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese etc looking people) can be referred to as "de type asiatique" (something I would avoid if I'm addressing 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 "Maghrébins" (I avoid using "Maghrébin" when talking to an Arab because it is implying he or she is an Algerian, a Tunisian, or a Moroccan citizen). The police uses the expression "de type Nord-Africain".

Using "verlan" crypto-slang (obtained by mixing the syllables 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 around Senghor used it extensively in the context of the "Négritude" movement.

As far as I know, in the French Antilles, it's not offensive to talk about someone being a Métis, Mulâtre, Quarteron, 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.
    – Personne
    Commented Jul 31, 2014 at 19:41
  • Rital est toujours utilisé dans certaines régions, comme Portos. Je crois que n'ai jamais entendu ces mots de façon mal intentionnée, idem pour Polack et Ruskoff ; dans le doute, à éviter dans les salons quand même. Concernant les aliments, mon préféré est de loin la Pastèque pour les "68ards" reconvertis dans l'écologie (vert dehors, rouge dedans). Il me semble avoir entendu aussi la noix de Coco pour les Africains à mentalité occidentale, mais c'est plutôt en Afrique qu'en France.
    – Yves
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 2:03

A difficulty in answering this question is that the French perspective on race is quite different from the North American perspective; in particular, referring to someone by their skin color (as opposed to their nationality, or their national origin) is generally more offensive, or at least less politically acceptable, in France than in North America — even when the reference is purely descriptive. The more politically correct terms tend to veer towards national origin or ethnicity rather than skin color.

For this reason, terms that might be considered simply descriptive of skin color in North America may be considered more offensive in a similar context in France.

This is a particularly acute problem to describe "whites" in France — to my knowledge, there is no widely accepted politically correct term for it.

With that said —


Descriptive: noir, à la peau noire, de teint noir, mélanoderme (technical term to mean having black skin, not used very much)

Politically correct:

  • for Africans: d'origine africaine, d'origine sub-saharienne

  • for African-Americans: noir américain

  • for Afro-Caribbeans: countries are used, e.g. haïtien, dominicain, jamaïcain, cubain, etc.; or (for DOM), guadeloupéen, martiniquais.

Slang: renoi, black, kebla

Offensive: nègre, blackos

North African

This group is more present in France than in the US and has therefore more terms to describe it.

Descriptive: de teint mat, de peau mate, de teint olive (this just describes skin color, and may cover other ethnicities as well).

Politically correct: d'origine maghrébine, d'origine nord-africaine

Common: arabe (even if many are from the non-Arabic berber people), oriental (even if most people from North African origin in France come from places that aren't particularly much to the East of France).

Slang: rebeu, blédard

Offensive: bougnoule

East Asian

Descriptive: asiatique, xanthoderme (technical, not used much)

Politically correct: d'origine asiatique

Offensive: jaune, niakoué, chintok


Descriptive: blanc, de teint blanc, de peau blanche, leucoderme (technical, not used much)

Politically correct: as mentioned above, there isn't really a good word here. You kind of have to choose who to offend. For a while, de souche européenne was used for this, and shortened to français de souche, but has become associated with far-right nationalism. In the other direction, the derivative souchien was created, and is understood as pejorative for whites when read as sous-chien.

It may be easier to describe non-whites. A euphemism for this is issu de l'immigration, even if many immigrants to France are whites and many non-whites have been French for many generations (e.g. martiniquais, guadeloupéens). Another euphemism for non-whites is issu d'une minorité visible.

Slang: babtou, toubab, gaulois

Offensive: fromage, jambon, sous-chien

  • Add toubab (the original version of verlan babtou), and the very unfortunate jambon (mostly used by Arabs, especially neo-Muslims, referring to pork-eating whites).
    – dda
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 12:01
  • From the perspective of a very white American learning French, the "offensive" slang for white people is pretty funny. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 5:00
  • That's the most complete, accurate and modern answer
    – Nino Filiu
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 12:57
  • +1 for the "You have to choose who to offend". I would take "sous-chien" from the list, as it was a bad, (though possibly unintentional) attempt at a derogatory sounding neologism by someone advocating US-style racial politics in France ("souchien" like "having [French] roots" sounds like "sous-chien" (lower than a dog) but it never really catched on, nor is it particularly derogatory.
    – Yves
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 2:06

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.

  • 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! Commented Jul 29, 2014 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. Commented Jul 29, 2014 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. Commented Jul 29, 2014 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.
    – ApplePie
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 10:38
  • "Un black" and "espingouin" are much used all over France, though I do agree the first is absolutely not grammatically correct. Commented Jul 29, 2014 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
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 12:21
  • @Yves Rital used to be very offensive but its rudeness faded out with time and mostly disappeared after Cavanna's eponymous book was published in 1978.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 16:51
  • Your mention of ethnique as a noun is interesting (+1) & it brought to mind Jacques Parizeau’s use of the word (albeit, as an adjective) in his “par l'argent et le vote ethnique” remark after the '95 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Do you think the nominalization of that word can be traced back to that (unfortunate, imo) remark? Anyway, it does seem similar to how “illegal” is unfortunately used in Am English by some as a noun to mean “illegal alien” & even by some to cast doubt on anyone, regardless of legal status, who “doesn’t belong here.”
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 14:21
  • To be honest, I have no idea how much of a filiation there may be or not be. The callback is obvious, but whether it's the source of the new use rather than just an incidental use of the same word I have no idea.
    – Circeus
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 15:00

Rital is highly offensive in French, like negro, rebeu, jaune, espingouin, portos. I think the best way is to refer to the nation of origin : mes amis laotiens, ma femme russe, mon collègue tunisien...

  • I'm not sure it's the best way, as being French, russian or whatever nationality doesn't have anything to do with what you look like...
    – Laurent S.
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 11:13

You can use 'de couleur' in the same manner as we say 'of colour' in English. It's used in the cosmetics industry for non-white women.


Blacks are considered African in France , whites are French or european , brown people consider Romani my friend is brown always mistaken for Romani

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    That's not true. In France the color of the skin does not assume the geographic origin of the person (eg a black person can come from Africa, America, etc). There are no brown people (no french says il est marron...). French or European: you can simply write European, but that's still false (cf my first point).
    – Nino Filiu
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 15:27

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