When the census listed Negro as a race option in 2010, a controversy erupted.
My students at the University of Michigan were eager to denounce the term’s use: “Negro? It has to go!”
To their ears, “Negro” was derogatory, too close in tone to the other, more infamous n-word. I played devil’s advocate, to test their thinking: “But some black elders still self-identify as Negroes.” “It’s preferable to its predecessor, colored.”
“Don’t some of you belong to the National Council of Negro Women chapter?”
I could not shake their thought.
I was confronting a generational divide. For my grandmother, “Negro” was a term of respect. To my students, it was an epithet.
It’s no surprise that we feel unsettled when a new language of identity takes over the old. The language of race–constructed variously in science, law, politics and culture–has always been a moving target, and we aren’t the first generation to confront it.
My CNN essay “Biracial and also black” generated a debate about the words we use to describe African-Americans. I called myself mixed-race, a phrase that includes identities rooted in multiple races.
Another term, biracial, some readers pointed out, assumes one identity borne out of two. It is, perhaps, too narrow for a discussion about identity in the 21st century.
Some readers also rejected the phrase “African-American,” deeming it awkward and inaccurate. Renee wrote: “We are not from Africa, I was born here in the U.S. I don’t know anyone there, can’t even say my ancestors are from there.”
Those who defended the use of African-American noted it was rooted in history, culture and personal choice. Others offered up alternatives, like “person of color,” “black,” “halfrican-American” and “mutt.”
The debate from my essay illustrates how difficult it can be when we rely on linguistic conventions to express the complexity of human identities.
Even so, there are words that have fallen out of favor. No reader seriously proposed that I use a term like mulatto or quadroon instead of mixed-race.
Among black Americans, ideas about the language of self-identification have changed over time.
In the early 19th century, black leaders also debated what names to give their religious and political organizations.
In the end they split. Churches adopted the term “African,” as in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Political organizations opted for “Colored,” as in the Colored National Convention of 1848. And while we often refer to it as the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization has kept the word “colored” in its name long after it has left common parlance.
By the early 20th century, the term “Negro” gained traction.
In 1971, the Congressional Black Caucus was formed. Its name suggested how the civil rights and black power movements left behind terms like African, colored and Negro.
Sometimes, shifts in language happen before our eyes. I can recall when The Journal of Negro History became The Journal of African American History.