Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On using the word "Negro"

So a friend of mine recently sparked an interesting discussion about the use of the word "Negro". To put it in context, some unidentified acquaintance of this friend was trying to describe a person of African extraction and referred to them using that word. My friend was wondering whether to correct the terminology used by this person, who was of an older generation. A number of other folks added their two cents to this discussion, and among the comments were several condemning this heinous racism and advising that my friend had a duty to correct it.

Me? I have a problem with that actually. In fact it's a pet peeve of mine.
Now I know some of you might find something fundamentally wrong with me, a non-black person, telling people what they should or shouldn't find offensive when it comes to words referring to black people. But f#ck it, here I go anyway.

 Not that I think the term should go uncorrected. But what I'm focusing on is when people are all too quick to conclude that racism is at play, when it may be little more than outdated terminology used by well-meaning individuals. 

Saying "Negro" does not make someone racist, although it could of course depend on the context. "Negro" is not the same as "nigger". Virtually everyone knows that "nigger" is racist and offensive; even if, following the recontextualizing of it by hip-hop culture, some non-black folks think it's appropriate to use in ways that it's not. "Negro" on the other hand, elicits a range of responses. Some people think it's straight-up racist to call someone that, whereas some of you reading this will undoubtedly be thinking right now, "Huh? 'Negro' is racist? Since when?"

"Negro" is certainly out of fashion, and politically incorrect. But it was once a relatively acceptable term, and a lot of old people use it to this day. It is a word with Latin roots - it still features in languages such Spanish and Italian, meaning simply "black" - and thus it was long used in scientific and anthropological contexts. I've heard my grandmother - formerly a biology teacher - refer to people as Negroes, and there's no hint of malice or prejudice there. It's like when old-timers sometimes refer to Asian people as "Orientals"; some Asian-Americans consider that a racist term, but again, to my mind it is merely old-fashioned. You could label a person who talks about Negroes and Orientals as being ignorant, but calling them racist is a step too far without further evidence.

The appropriate terminology changes with time, and it's not always easy to keep up. "African American", of course, is the proper term to use, but even as someone who takes an active interest in ethnic and racial matters, I honestly can't tell you whether or not that term should be hyphenated, or if it's still okay to use "Afro-American". Or whether it's okay to call someone "Black". Or whether "Black" needs that capital letter at all. (My spell checker is telling me that "Negro" requires a capital.)

Now, this post is not intended as a rant against "political correctness gone mad", even though that is something that bugs me. Rather, it's something that anyone who considers him or herself an anti-racist should bear in mind. The more you label people racist when they are not racist, you just contribute to making the label "racist" meaningless. When it feels like anything and everything is potentially racist, we shall reach a point where people just won't care any more.

This is not say that it's not important to get the terminology right, as it shows respect to whoever is being talked about. But fixation on this kind of hair-splitting starts to get unhealthy, and it's something that bugs me about certain sections of the Left-liberal intelligentsia. Why go out of one's way to see racism where it doesn't necessarily exist? And why go out of one's way to potentially make enemies (by branding people as racist), when they might otherwise be a potential ally?

So my advice to my friend was along these lines: It's okay to correct that person, but if you do it, do it in an understanding and tactful way. Presuming they are speaking out of racial animosity is going to make things go south very quickly. If I was unwittingly using words which some people found hurtful and inappropriate, personally I would want to know, so I could reflect on it and perhaps find different ways to express myself. But if it comes across like some holier-than-thou person calling me a racist... well that never goes down too well.


  1. Or use of Negrito, the dimunitive form of the word Negro.


  2. I just say "black." I have yet to know/meet a black person (yes, as hard as it may be to believe, I actually do have individual black friends!) who says "African American." Pretty much all of them simply say black.

    In fact, I would say that virtually all of the people I hear saying "African American" are politically correct whites and Asian Americans, as well as professors, journalists, and pundits (who can be black).

    Why go out of one's way to see racism where it doesn't necessarily exist? And why go out of one's way to potentially make enemies (by branding people as racist), when they might otherwise be a potential ally?

    What? How dare you, ES! Are you actually suggesting that socially conscious people not harangue white people as racists? You would let these awful people of privilege off the hook and not constantly interrogate their racist whiteness?

    *Sarcasm off*

    A reasonable demand, ES, but I don't think the Abagond/SWPD crowd has gotten the message. They're just like radical white nationalists in this regard. They're obsessed with ideological purity and their sense of self-righteousness, as opposed to actually getting something done. Even if I didn't harbor the views on race that I harbor and were sympathetic to the anti-racist cause, I would still have trouble respecting the leftist intelligentsia crowd, if only because of such foolishness.

    When it feels like anything and everything is potentially racist, we shall reach a point where people just won't care any more.

    I think most white people, myself included, are already ahead of you.

    I think that white rage/backlash has been overstated by the left, but at the same time, I do believe that most are simply fed up with anti-racist/PC dogma, are tired of being told that they have to atone for America's original sin, and are in no mood to "interrogate their privilege" or be harangued by anti-racists.

    Most simply tune the "white privilege" crowd out.

    1. I agree that both Left and Right are often too focused with demonizing the other rather than engaging in discussion that might lead to some degree of rapprochement.

      There is a sort of industry within the media and academia that has sprung up based around identifying and calling out racism. Which is okay, but you could argue that some of these people need to keep finding racism wherever they can to give meaning to their existence.

  3. "person of color" = politically correct
    "colored person" = racist!

    1. I agree that there's something wrong with that.

      Having read your blog, I also conclude there is something wrong with you.

  4. That Libertarian guy is really messed up. Kudos on the post, I enjoyed reading. I agree with you. I don't consider Oriental racist, just old fashioned. My Pakistani dad still refers to blacks as 'negroes'. Don't have any African-AMERICAN friends but I do have some Sudanese friends, though. He just likes to be called Sudanese.