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Denominations of Race

Negro, coloured, Black, African-American, person of colour

Which is the best (read politically-correct) word to use today and what is the history of these various denominations and their historic context?

In an attempt to answer these questions I started researching and here is what I found in a note by Ken Greenwald in 2005, on wordwizard:


NEGRO (originally lower-case but now mostly upper – see explanation below) is the oldest of the three, first appearing in print in 1555. COLORED, as a designation for having a skin other than ‘white,’ especially, wholly or partly of Black or ‘colored’ descent, first made its appearance in print in 1611, and BLACK didn’t come on the scene in any significant way until the mid 1960s. AFRICAN AMERICAN dates back to 1855, but didn’t gain popularity until the second half of the 20th century. And PERSON OF COLOR, of which ‘Blacks’ are a subset, also dates back to 19th century, but didn’t come into its own until the 1990s.

The terms NEGRO (capitalized and not) and COLORED/COLOREDS (capitalized and not, but mostly not), with ‘colored’ predominating, remained the standard designation throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. The disagreement over what blacks wanted to call themselves dates back to about the end of the Civil War and continued through the beginning of the 20th century. Prominent black American leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington (see 1906 quote below) preferred ‘negro.’ It is interesting that the NAACP, founded in 1909, actually first called itself the National Negro Conference, but after a year of debate settled first on “The National Committee for the Advancement of the Negro” and then finally on the National Association for the advancement of Colored People. ‘Black’ was not considered because it was often viewed as a harsh word to distinguish ‘pureblacks from mulattoesBlack Americans, ‘colored’ lost favor as the 20th century progressed, and its use today is generally taken to be offensive.

With the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, the designation BLACK (either capitalized or not), after its earlier dismissal, was reclaimed as an expression of racial pride – “black is beautiful” was a slogan asserting pride in Blackness and Black self-awareness – and, since then, the term ‘Negro’ (together with related terms such as ‘Negress’) has fallen from favor and is now typically regarded as out of date, inappropriate, and/or derogatory and offensive in both British and American English. ‘Negro’ is still, however, used in positive contexts as part of the names of certain organizations, such as the United Negro College Fund, and in historical contexts, for example with reference to baseball’s Negro Leagues.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a mostly successful effort to abandon the word ‘Negro’ in favor of ‘black.’ An interesting and almost forgotten sidelight to this effort is that earlier ‘Negro’ educators and leaders fought a long, hard and ultimately successful battle to get themselves referred to as “Negroes with a capital ‘N’” (Negro had actually been spelled with a capital ‘N’negro’ with a lower-case ‘n’ as acceptable. Steady pressure on editors of newspapers and magazines resulted in a gradual change to the upper-case ‘N. But then the time came when as one black spokesman of the day proclaimed, “Negro is just the white man’s word for ‘nigger’ and must be eliminated in favor of ‘black’“– and it largely has been.

Although both AFRICAN and AFRICAN AMERICAN (also hyphenated) were widely used in the United States in the 19th century, the adoption of African-American (or ‘Afro-American’, and earlier, ‘Aframerican’) as a preferred term among black Americans, dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s (particularly after an April 1972 conference at which Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, proposed its use). The term gained widespread acceptance at the end of the 1980s following its endorsement by the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his presidential nomination campaign in 1988. The appeal of this term is obvious, since it does not allude to skin color but to an ethnicity based on geography, history, and culture, and it won rapid acceptance in the media alongside similar forms such as ‘Asian American,’ ‘Hispanic American,’ and ‘Italian American.’ But unlike what happened a generation earlier when ‘black‘ replaced ‘negro,’ ‘African American’ has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting ‘Black,’ which remains both popular and positive. And then, of course, since not all Africans are black, there is the problem of the white African American (e.g. originally from South Africa) who might be confused with a Black American using this designation, but because of their small numbers this does not seem to have been a major issue.

Note: The capitalization of Black does raise problems for the treatment of the term ‘white.’ Orthographic evenhandedness would seem to require the use of uppercase ‘White,’ but this form might be taken to imply that whites constitute a single ethnic group, which is certainly debatable. Uppercase ‘White’ is also sometimes associated with the writings of whitewhite’ in the same context as uppercase ‘Black’ would obviously raise questions as to how and why the writer has distinguished between the two groups. There is no entirely satisfactory solution to this problem and the uncertainty as whether to capitalize or not capitalize ‘white’ has discouraged many publications from adopting the capitalized form ‘Black.’

PERSON OF COLOR (POC) has recently (1990s) become popular (its use actually dates back to the 18th century – see 1796 quote below) as a result of dissatisfaction with the implications of NONWHITE as a racial label. Many people object to the term ‘nonwhite’ because it refers to people by what they are ‘not’ rather than what they ‘are,’ whereas ‘person of color’ substitutes a positive (POC) for a negative (nonwhite). It is interesting, though, that the almost exclusive association in American English of ‘colored’ with Black does not carry over to terms formed with ‘of color’ (‘person of color,’ ‘woman of color,’ etc.), which are used inclusively to mean, not just Blacks, but all people who are ‘other than white.’

Note: And then there is the question of who is Black. Does it require a half, a quarter, an eighth of one’s ancestry, or even less? The answer that is generally accepted by both blacks and whites is that Black means any person with any known African black ancestry. In the South it had been known as the ‘one-drop rule,’ meaning that a single drop of ‘black blood’ makes a person black. But some Americans of dual ancestry have preferred to identify themselves as ‘mixed’ rather than African-Americans.

About two years after he posted this note, Ken Greenwald adds this next note:

This morning’s Sunday New York Times carried the following discussion:

On Language by William Safire, February 4, 2007

Mixed Race

In a more serious vein, how does Senator Obama identify his personal racial mixture? The golf champion Tiger Woods told Oprah Winfrey that he likes to call himself a “Cablinasian,” an amalgam of “Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian,” but perhaps that was jocular. Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. The columnist Clarence Page, who is black, notes that the Illinois senator does not run away from the “black” label: “I can tell you a substantial number of black voters are mightily suspicious and even personally offended by black folks who don’t want to be called ‘black.’ ” In his recent book, “Audacity of Hope,” the senator identifies himself as “a black man of mixed heritage.”

Mixed-race is a coinage first spotted by the O.E.D. in The Guardian in 1971, when the British newspaper referred to “a delegation of six mixed-race Rhodesians.” That new usage was acceptable to many in South Africa categorized as colored, but that description fell out of favor there as well as in the U.S. as recalling the era of apartheid and segregation. Colored had one sense of “neither all black nor all white” and another sense of a euphemism for Negro. Colored is now taken by many to be offensive, but people of color is embraced proudly. In the U.S., black is now widely acceptable, especially in a second reference to African-Americans. Nonwhite is acceptable to demographers but will likely wither as suggesting that whiteness is the norm. Mixed heritage, Obama’s usage following black, suggests ethnicity more than race — like the offspring of British and Russian parents — which is why mixed-race is the compound adjective to keep your eye on.
_______________________

Ken G – February 4, 2007

Following the same time line, I invite you now to be a guest student at Professor Clay Carson’s first lecture, Introduction to African-American History Course, recorded on September 25th, 2007, at Stanford University, which concentrates on the Modern Freedom Struggle.

This first lecture includes the course introduction, a talk on W.E.B. Du Bois, and gives you an overview of the other personalities discussed, among them, Barack Obama.

If you find this first lecture interesting, you are invited to watch the next recordings available on YouTube.

Filed under: 4►LIFE, ■ African-American History, ■ Races, ■ Stanford University, ■ W. E. B. Du Bois

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