Today, our team was bought a drink or two by our company, so I was talking with an Afroamerican colleague and was trying to describe him that I had seen San Francisco in San Andreas GTA game, but he couldn't understand about what version of the game I was talking about, so I was trying to describe him the main player, which is a black person.

In my attempt, I said black guy, but as soon as I started the phrase I decreased the volume of my voice and I actually told that only to the 3rd guy in our conversation and I do not know if the Afroamerican person really heard me or even if he reacted, because I looked intentionally the other guy, since I felt I was telling something bad.

Tonight, some people stole our phone, and they happened to be black, and when I finally found a police officer, I was trying to describe him the scene and in my rush I said "..the black guy grabbed the phone.." and the police officer was also black. So did I say something offensive? I only that afterwards...

So, is the phrase "black guy" accepted for a tourist like me (it's freaking obvious I am one)?

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    I'll also note that, even as a tourist, you should always be aware of your surroundings. You are quite fortunate that you weren't seriously injured. This has been going on for a while. – Michael Hampton Aug 6 '16 at 6:39
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    @MichaelHampton I couldn't agree more. Well I would let the narrator know that it's all about Marketing. I am not that type of guy, fortunately, my mobile has buttons and it can only phone and text! But my colleague is a type that has the latest phone! Thanks for the good advice. It was a mistake to chase down the thieves, we should have done nothing, but as my colleague went after them, I automatically did so too, while I know I shouldn't! :/ phoog, thanks! – gsamaras Aug 6 '16 at 6:45
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    As a sidenote, you don't have to "find a police officer," you can call 911 (assuming you're with someone else who has a phone) or ask someone to call 911 for you. How quickly the police will come may vary depending on what else they have happening, but it may be better than wandering around looking for an officer. – Zach Lipton Aug 6 '16 at 7:43
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    Although it is of course unacceptable to treat people differently based on external attributes such as skin tone, hair color, tattoo's, etc., I feel that it is also something we are often too politically correct about. I would find it much more awkward to say "that person over there, a little to the left, with the yellowish sweater and the sunglasses -- no, that's beige, I mean more like light-blue" when they have an obvious identifying trait such as "the dude with the tattoo's" or "the black woman". [1/2] – CompuChip Aug 6 '16 at 12:06
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    Of course, it becomes a different story when you say "I didn't see the robber but he was probably black" or call the tattoo'ed guy "that Hell's Angel over there" based purely on his looks. However, I live in a pretty open-minded environment, in and it probably does not work like this in any place in the world, so +1 for asking. [2/2] – CompuChip Aug 6 '16 at 12:06

Black vs African-American (and in written English, Black vs black) is a complicated language and cultural question without clear answers. Entire books can and have been written on the subject. This answer is one (not-black) person's opinion, and really diving into it is probably more of a matter for a site like english.stackexchange.com.

But none of that particularly matters to a tourist. The short answer is that both terms are generally considered acceptable in common newspaper style and spoken English (though African-American is generally not used when describing people of Caribbean descent). "Black man" is a common descriptive term and is not inherently offensive.

As always, be respectful and avoid labeling people unnecessarily. Most other terms are outdated and/or offensive and should be avoided. "Afroamerican" isn't in particularly common usage. Your original question, "how to handle black people in California," caused me to jump a little bit, as people of any race aren't generally "handled." In general, avoid describing people by race unless it's relevant (and it probably is relevant if you're trying to describe a certain game's protagonist or are giving a full description of the people who took off with your phone).

Especially as a tourist, it's also ok to ask in situations like these. Instead of lowering your voice and trying to mumble through it, you can say something like, "I'm from X and not sure; did I use the correct term?" People are likely to be understanding and will appreciate that you don't want to cause any offense.

Personally, I think "black man" generally sounds better than than "black guy," especially in a formal setting, but it doesn't sound like you caused any offense regardless.

Very glad you're ok and hope you were still able to enjoy the falafel anyway (I'm a big fan of that place).

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    As hinted at in this answer, not all black people you meet in California are of African heritage, nor are all of them even Americans. If you're not sure about someone's heritage or nationality, "black" is a safer bet. – GrandOpener Aug 6 '16 at 23:12
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    Thanks @GrandOpener, I was driven to this conclusion because my colleague is from Ghana and because many important names of the black community are from Africa, but you are right! – gsamaras Aug 7 '16 at 0:04

I assume that African-American (or Afroamerican as you wrote) implies that the person is an American with African origin. Hence you could only use that term if you are sure about the person's nationality.

Personally, I propose to avoid adding a nationality to the person's appearance origin. E.g. a tourist, a business traveller or a colleague with a green card just joining your American company site could have African origin but isn't American. He could be a Swede, French or German.

As already proposed, it is rather clever to mention the skin color only as last alternative if there is nothing else to distinguish a person from another. In that case, you should enunciate respectful and polite.

It is also noteworthy that an acceptable term changes over time as well as location. My mother once used the N-Word and I was shocked to hear that. It turned out that she learned it in her youth where it wasn't a bad word and the affected people used the term for them self, too. Getting her rid of this habit is a really worrying for me! Who knows what your children will think about you if say 'black' in 20 years.

  • I may hope that some words never turn into a nasty word. It is already hard to use the word for black in Spanish on an internet search, just when you look for an item painted in that dark colour. – Willeke Aug 6 '16 at 19:00
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    Where I live, perhaps half or more of the "black" people are actually African immigrants, and "African-Americans" are harder to find. You can't tell the difference visually, of course. But when they're speaking a language which isn't English, it's pretty obvious. But even so, if you make an assumption either way, without some evidence, you could be wrong. – Michael Hampton Aug 6 '16 at 22:11
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    @Jens Wirth - African American is a term used for Americans of African heritage, not particularly origin, same as Asian American covers Americans of Asian descent. The term originated as a politically correct alternative to "black". You need no worry about nationality, unless you happen to live in an area with lots of recent immigrants from Africa. – user13044 Aug 7 '16 at 0:45

'African-American' is the most appropriate especially in a formal setting.You would do better to use an 'african american male' than just a 'black man'. Informally, You can use 'Black' as well there is no problem with that, just keep in mind there is a way of pronouncing the word 'black'(sounds a bit like 'bulllaackk') that can sound quite antagonistic toward African-Americans just because of the fact when antagonizers refer to 'black' people they tend to pronounce it in that way.

  • You mean with a stereotypical southern accent, like your stereotypical person who's unappy that the South lost the US civil war would have? Yeah, definitely avoid that, especially if that's not your normal accent. – Peter Cordes Aug 7 '16 at 6:46

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