Racism (30): What Should We Call Non-White People, and How Do Names Affect Us?

comments 8
equality / racism
A young demonstrator carries a placard that reads "No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger" at the Harlem Peace March to End Racial Oppression on April 27, 1967. The statement was taken from boxer Muhammad Ali's original statement about his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, "Ain't no Vietcong ever called me nigger." Photo by Builder Levy

A young demonstrator carries a placard that reads “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” at the Harlem Peace March to End Racial Oppression on April 27, 1967. The statement was taken from boxer Muhammad Ali’s original statement about his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Photo by Builder Levy

Obviously, “nigger” is out. Initially a neutral term – from the Latin “niger” which means black – it was often used without racist connotation during much of the 19th century, but it became increasingly pejorative and derogatory. Even though it’s still used today by some, shall we say “African Americans”, to describe each other, often even endearingly, it’s done with.

“Negro” also means “black”, notably in Spanish and Portuguese. This term took over from “nigger” and then also from “colored” as the more polite appellation (“colored” was common usage during a few decades at the beginning of the 19th century).

“Negro” was long considered to be the proper English-language term for people of sub-Saharan African origin. This lasted until the late 1960s. Martin Luther King could still call himself a Negro. However, the term was already criticized in the 1950s en 1960s, notably by Malcolm X who successfully tried to redeem the word “black” which was seen as offensive during much of the first half of the 20th century. And indeed, “black was beautiful” during the “black power” era in the 1970s.

“African American” then took over from “black” which went from repudiated to acceptable to repudiated again. (Initially, the term was “Afro-American” derived from “Anglo-American”). “African American” has been the standard term since the 1980s, and it still is today.  “Negro” is now considered to be acceptable only in a historical context, and you should avoid talking about “black people”. African American – a term which for the first time doesn’t reference skin color – was initially hyphenated: “African-American”, like “Irish-American” or “Cuban-American”. This has become problematic very recently in reaction to the belittling phrase “hyphenated Americans“. Hence the recent omission of the hyphen.

Many will see this movement of the language of race as political correctness “gone wild”, but language does evolve and words carry meaning and historical references. Meanings and historical references can influence ideas and behavior. People who insist on using the word “nigger” are likely to have certain very specific ideas about those whom they call “nigger”. And these ideas can circulate when the word circulates. Even those who are tempted to see PC at work here will surely agree that “nigger” is an unacceptable and damaging use of language. But if “nigger” is, then why not also certain other words?

The evolution of words is confirmed by Google Ngrams and the NYT database:

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“Negro” was quite often used during the Civil War era and during the Civil Rights struggle, understandably, and was the standard expression in the period between. “Blacks” took over in the 70s, and “African American” in the 90s. “Nigger” has always been taboo in published works.

There is more on the harmful use of language in general here and here. Something more specific about the terminology of race is here and here. And let’s also not forget that human races actually don’t even exist.

More posts in this series are here.


  1. Florian says

    if ‘black’ is considered as “to be avoided”, what about ‘white’ ? should it be caucasian then? And if ” human races actually don’t even exist”, does the same apply to dog races? ;-)

  2. I asked one of my friends once, who would be considered African American, what she preferred. And her answer surprised me, though in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have. Lisa said: I’ve never been to Africa, and I have no interest in going. I’m American. Period.

  3. African American is a stupid term adopted out of political correctness–a term I don’t use often (PC)–and examining its parts demonstrates why. As others have already pointed out, many of the world’s blacks are neither African nor American. Well that’s a problem if we’re calling blacks African Americans. Obviously blacks living in Africa are African, and we can just call them African if we wish to (but would obviously have to distinguish between white Africans, or Chinese Africans, etc., if we cared to). Some black Africans now live in Europe, but do we call them European Africans? I doubt it. And there many blacks now living in America (United States), but whose ancestors are so far removed from Africa that it really seems rather degrading and nonsensical to be calling them African Americans.

    They are black, and we ought to be calling them black. Now we have a word to describe a physical property (no, they aren’t really “black,” so that might present a problem), and we don’t get into the trouble of where there ancestors many centuries ago may have originated or the trouble of where they currently reside. I just as easily call a black person living here in Minnesota a black person just as I could call a black person living in Brazil or Japan a black person. Easy. That makes sense.

    Of course, we recognize today that human race is biologically nonsense idea. It is what’s called a social construct. But just because it has no basis in biology does not mean it has no social or cultural significance. We know, for example, black people make less money and are less educated than whites in the United States, stemming largely to the huge disparity in how we’ve treated the two populations for many centuries here. So in this sense, having this vocabulary is important for us to describe the world we live in. So just calling everyone “human” doesn’t quite work. Understanding there is a social context in which skin color affects people is important. Further, I could write that my missing child is “a human with brownish complexion,” but it would be much simpler and, I think, more appropriate to say she is black.

  4. Pingback: Call Them Colored – They Hate It | Eradica

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