Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Volokh Conspiracy: How “Negro” Became a Taboo Word

A very interesting blog post to consider and very eager to hear any perspectives on this issue.
In response to the controversy generated by Senator Harry Reid’s reference to “Negro dialect,” Brian Palmer has an interesting article on Slate covering the history of how “Negro” became a taboo word. I was already aware that Negro gave way to “black” in the late 1960s in part due to the influence of the Black Power movement. Ironically, as Palmer recounts, Negro itself replaced the previously standard “colored” in the 1920s as a result of a concerted campaign by civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois. In the late 1980s, African-American started to become the preferred term, even though surveys show that most actual African-Americans either don’t care or continue to prefer “black.”
In each case, the transition from one term to another was driven by a belief that changing it would somehow reduce racism and increase the social status of black Americans. Unfortunately, I see no evidence that the various changes actually had any such beneficial effect. Indeed, each of these transitions might actually have increased white resentment towards blacks at the margin. As they happened, people who stuck to the old term out of habit would sometimes be accused of racism or racial insensitivity, and such accusations often generate a predictable backlash. Of course, it’s possible that there is data showing that the shift from “Negro” to “black” or that from “black” to “African-American” really did reduce racial prejudice after all. If so, I would be very interested to see it.

Finally, I should emphasize that there is a big difference between these efforts to replace one polite term with another (while stigmatizing the older term), and what I regard as the entirely laudable attempt to stigmatize the use of words such as “kike” or “nigger.” The latter have always been used primarily as racial or ethnic slurs, and understood as such by both speakers and listeners. Not so in the case of words like Negro and black, at least prior to the effort to replace them with new terminology.
Instead of the often prevalent African-American, I prefer to call myself Black. I have no problem with the term Negro and do not find it offensive at all. Neither does the term "colored" raise my ire. There are worse terms to call me as a person or a Black man than those terms and I will not name those terms here.

Also, looking in the comments of that post I saw this:
Based on how it was explained to me as a child, the switch in the late 60s was made in order to give “blacks” the same kind of neutral, color-based identifier already enjoyed by “whites.” Of course, the switch to “African-American” was inspired by the practice of giving various American ethnic groups their own hyphenated identifier. Logically, African-Americans SHOULDN’T feel slighted by being referred to as “blacks” because whites are still collectively referred to as “whites.”
Honestly I always thought the whole white identifier was an insult. It's very easy to indentify anyone by the color of their skin, however, whites seems to have their own divisions according to ethnic or religious lines. Anyone who comes up with the Nat'l Association for the Advancement of White People or the United Caucasian College Fund really aren't helping anyone.

Of course to be Black well that's easily identifiable. Unless we can prove our ethnicity from Africa and some have used DNA testing to verify ethnicity especially since many of us have no way of tracking our ancestry having been largely lost during slavery times. I believe there is a Black ethnicity in America, although there are people out there who come from Africa or any of the nations of the new world such as Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico or other nations with significant populations of African descended people.

But while I can easily refer to whites by their skin color, I would just as soon refer to a person by either their name or their ethnic heritage. I can no more lumps whites together as a generic group, than to lump blacks together no matter their actual background into one group.

Now as for that post, as I said I prefer Black. It's a simple term that I think adequately describes African descended people here in the states that have been borne out of the era of slavery. The other historically used term for such people could be used and isn't seen as offensive by me.


Monsterfilmer said...

As a white person, I prefer 'black' because African American is an ignorant term and makes Americans look like idiots by assuming all black people live in The United States or are all from Africa. The hyphenate "blank-American" assumes that peple don't travel out of the country, too. If I'm in Canada I would sound like a jackass if I called a black man an African- American. Furthermore, that ignorant term implies that there are no white people in Africa.

chris said...

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