What’s in a Name? ‘Mixed,’ ‘Biracial,’ ‘Black’

Martha S. Jones, CNN, February 19, 2014

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.

The National Negro Business League was founded in 1900, and in 1914, Marcus Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association.

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.


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  • You can play with the words all day long, baby, but at sundown you’re still what you are. And as long as I have the freedom to use words in the dictionary (or make up my own), I’ll call you whatever I like. YOUR PERCEPTION THAT CERTAIN WORDS ARE RACIST ARE YOUR PROBLEM, NOT MINE.

    • Homo_Occidentalis

      Any word used to refer to Africans will over time develop negative connotations. I’m sure “black” will be the equivalent of the N-word in fifty years’ time.

      • Garrett Brown

        That’s why it doesn’t matter what you call them nor should you ever care yourself about what you call them. You could call them ‘beautiful’ and if you’re white, they would find a way to make that racist with time.

      • GeneticsareDestiny

        This. Any word used to refer to any group that is generally undesirable to be around will eventually become “racist,” or “discriminatory,” or just plain old “mean.”

        You can see the same thing happening with the words used to refer to people who are mentally retarded. It used to be perfectly acceptable to refer to them that way and was commonly done so by doctors and the general public, but now it’s “ableist” (which is a real -ism among PC types) and you have to say “learning impaired,” or “special needs.”

        Pretty soon, the new words will become just as “ableist” as the old ones, and liberals will come up with shiny new ones, which will in turn go out of favor in a decade or two.

        This process will probably happen even more quickly now that the internet exists and it is easier to spread new language around. The sooner new PC terms become commonplace, the sooner they will become insults and will have to be retired.

        • Who Me?

          I thought the newest term was “differently-abled” now. (which makes absolutely NO sense at all.)

          • David Ashton

            What has “sense” got to do with it?
            I read somewhere recently that “common sense” was “racist”.
            Perhaps it was an opinion expressed by someone with “learning difficulty issue challenges”.

      • TheAntidote

        There used to be a [email protected] crime expose site called ‘Detroit is Crap’. The owner insisted everybody use the term African American instead of epithets. When asked about this he claimed as you have that eventually African American will bring to mind dysfunction, stupidity, filth and violence, and would have to be replaced.
        Sure enough Henri Lewis Gattes is now pushing for “Nubian” to mean American Negro.

        • Who Me?

          “Nubian”? Oh please tell me you’re joking.

      • Sick of it

        Of course, since the “N word” was derived from the Latin word for black.

    • Fr. John+

      Amen! Preach it, brother! LOL

      (or, to quote Tennesse Williams: ‘But ya ARE, Blanche… ya ARE!’)

  • D.B. Cooper

    What’s next, “Black” and “African-American” are offensive?
    That’s where it’s going because whites keep electing weak politicians who will not do anything except reach out to more minorities.

    • pre civil war – “Naggers”
      post civil war – “Negros”
      1960’s – “Blacks”
      1990’s – “African Americans”
      Present – “Teens”


      • MBlanc46

        “Colored” was in there in the early 20th century.

        • Who Me?

          Afro-American was also in there, around late 60’s-early 70’s I believe.

          • MBlanc46

            Indeed, and, as I recall, it appeared to be on the brink of becoming the accepted term. Then, some black nationalist–H. Rap Brown, I think–said something on the order of, “I’m not African, I’m black,” and “black” became the quasi-official lingo until the late 1980s.

      • r j p

        You forgot “Yoofs”.

      • Alexandra1973

        “Naggers” is pretty accurate, because they nag for more “gibsmedat.”

  • Tarczan

    I hope darkie is ok. It was pretty big with Scarlett O’Hara and the rest of the “Gone With the Wind” gang.

    • Alexandra1973

      I heard that when they made the movie, back in the 30s, they did not want to use The En Word. Seems PC’s been creeping up on us for longer than we realize.

    • blight14

      And Stephen Foster, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’……(just 25 miles down the road from me)

      • Katherine McChesney

        True American music.

  • What ever you decide to call yourselves this week, you’re still just a black with all the usual pathologies (such as delusions of grandeur) inherently attached.

  • Truthseeker

    I suppose we get some of this among whites too, but no mainstream publication would ever publish an article like this from one of our people. Personally, I think of myself as a white American. White Americans are a distinct ethno-cultural subset of the American population, and it best describes who I am.

    At one point, when I was still wrestling with where I stood on racial issues, I used to think that “Caucasian” sounded better than “white,” because so many people had attached negative connotations to the word “white.” Eventually though, I realized that “white” was a perfectly good word, and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. We whites are a distinct people group, so we should take charge of our own identity, not let others define it for us.

    I’d say the same thing to blacks or mixed people, or anyone else. Call yourselves whatever you want. I don’t care. It’s your identity, so take charge of it.

    • pcmustgo

      I don’t much like the word “white” because it strips whites of their ethnic diversity.

      • Bossman

        The very earliest Europeans who came to America did not call themselves whites or even Europeans. The preferred term in those very early days was Christians.

        • Einsatzgrenadier

          Europeans were calling themselves “white” during the Hellenistic-Roman period. For example, Juvenal, Satire 2.23: Let the straight-legged man laugh at the club-footed, the white man at the black. Europeans were calling themselves “Europeans” during the 8th century. Isidore of Pacensis calls the forces that defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732 “Europenses”.

          • Bossman

            Cabeza de Vaca, the first white man to walk across the US southwest and then write a book about it which you can read online, described himself and his companions as Christians and the one black man in the group was described as a Moor.

          • Einsatzgrenadier

            In the “Chronicles of Peru” (1553) by Cieza de Leon, the Spaniards are described as “white and bearded”. The Indians even marvel at how white and bearded the Spaniards are. In one passage, Cieza writes: “Inquiring of the Indians living there who made those ancient remains, they answer that other people, bearded and white like ourselves, who, a long time before the Incas ruled, [they] say came to these parts and took up their abode there”.

      • Long Live Dixie

        I agree with you on this. What word should be used instead?

    • AngloWelsh

      The trouble with calling ethnic identities by colours, is that it gives the false impression that human races are merely separated by skin colour, and that race is just skin deep and therefore of trivial import – i.e., that the typical Negroid is identical to the typical Caucasoid, only with a better suntan! In fact, as we all know, a race is a biological subspecies, with all that implies: genetically-determined differences in ability, brain structure, behaviour, athleticism, intelligence, etc., all born of thousands of years and multiple generations of differential evolution, with virtually no interbreeding between groups until the last 100 years or so.

      • David Ashton

        The trouble is that the pigmentary “one-drop rule” has not helped. However, your comment is nevertheless spot-on.

  • Einsatzgrenadier

    I personally prefer the word n!66er when referring to the negroid subspecies. There is no other racial epithet in the English language that rolls off the tongue better than n!66er. N!66er is the Anglicized version of the Iberian negro, which comes from Latin. The Spaniards and the Portuguese were the first to use n!66ers on the latifundias of the New World. There’s very few words like n!66er in the English language. N!66er handily sums up 500 years of white experience with negroes. There’s also no other word that reminds a black of his proper place in white society. In addition, the word n!66er is quite flexible; it can even be applied to other dark-skinned races, such Indians and Filipinos (US officers described the Philippine-American War of 1899–1902 a “n!66er-killing business”).

  • dd121

    I don’t let my political enemies set the agenda of how our differences are debated.

  • Bossman

    What is wrong with Afro-American? USA Blacks have no problems in referring to someone from Latin America who is black as Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban or Afro-Caribbean. Jazz musicians are always making references to Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music.The term Mulatto is very specific whereas the term “mixed race” can be very vague and could mean any type of racial mixture.

    • 1stworlder

      When I heard someone talking about blacks in the UK as African Americans I understood why the world hates America

  • What’s in a name? That which we call a negro by any other name would still be feral.

  • Einsatzgrenadier

    We should call people whatever we feel like calling them. To demand otherwise is to place unnecessary restrictions on freedom of speech.

    • Bossman

      What if the name is deeply offensive and derogatory to the person or group that you’re referring to? A democracy could not function that way. Blacks are now citizens of the USA.

      • Einsatzgrenadier

        That’s exactly why multiculturalism and multiracialism are such spectacular failures. Individual freedoms and liberties, as well as the national identity of the core ethny, must be steadily eroded in order to appease the demands of belligerent minorities. Democracies become totalitarian oligarchies in multicultural and multiracial environments.

        • Bossman

          The best that the USA can do at this time is to promote Americanism and that implies race mixing.

          • Chuck Chuckson

            Keep your White Genocide to yourself Bossman

      • GeneticsareDestiny

        A democracy will not fall apart because one group gets offended at something the other group is saying. Blacks commonly refer to whites as “white trash,” and other such things, but that is not the problem destroying America and I would not wish for their free speech to be restricted because I don’t like the things they say.

      • David Ashton

        Since few “blacks” anywhere are literally black, maybe we should call the majority sub-Saharan population “Afro-Africans”?

  • thomas edward

    What’s in a Name? ‘Mixed,’ ‘Biracial,’ ‘Black’
    Does that mean highyella is out too???

    • Katherine McChesney

      Or ‘blue gum”?

    • Sick of it

      Folks still use the term redbone from time to time.

  • Spartacus

    “The debate from my essay illustrates how difficult it can be when we
    rely on linguistic conventions to express the complexity of human
    identities. ”


    There really are no such complexities. You’re either White, Yellow, or a sub-human .

  • borogirl54

    What is the big deal? Negro means black in Spanish. That is all it means. I don’t know if they would use the word “colored” since it could be used to describe any non-white group. They could use the word “noir”, which is black in French, but I wonder how many of them can pronounce the word?

    • sbuffalonative

      Language is racist.

      • blight14

        As is gravity…..

    • IstvanIN

      Negro in English, the language we speak, simply means a member of the indigenous “people” of sub-Saharan Africa and shouldn’t be a slur any more than Caucasian.

  • Tarczan

    Quadroon really has a nice ring to it.

    • Brian


    • borogirl54

      Quadroon refers to anyone that is 25% black. Octaroon refers to anyone that is 1/8 black.

      • Max

        Centaroon for someone who is 1% black.

  • sbuffalonative

    Negro, as in United Negro College Fund, is offensive?

    • Jesse James

      Changing the name is just a leftist Alinsky tactic straight out of “Rules for Radicals”.

      “The third rule is : Whenever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear and retreat.”

      Leftist agitators love to mess with the minds of their enemies. (Alinsky Rule 6: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.) During my life blacks have been negroes, colored people, blacks, African-Americans, People of Color and now they are mostly black again. Just as soon as the white majority settles on what they think is the acceptable word the radicals work to change it again. They love to have little faux moral hissy fits when you use a suddenly outdated term so that they can dance around you chanting “racist, racist, racist”. Yet all of these terms have been considered correct at one point or another in the past sixty years. We even have the cultural detritus left to prove it: The United Negro College Fund, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congressional Black Caucus, the People of Color Caucus, the African American Cultural Center at the University of Georgia. Get it? It is just a radical game that works particularly well with older middle aged whites in positions of responsibility who honestly don’t wish to offend anyone – especially radical negroes.

      The best tactic when they try to play the “guess what you are allowed to call me today” game is to just laugh. If you are particularly nasty and prepared for a fight you can laugh and say “What do you want me to call you this week Sambo.”

    • r j p

      It’s offensive because there should be no negro college fund,
      unless it is paying for them to get a degree in Janitorial Arts.

  • MBlanc46

    I see little use for “quadroon”, “octaroon”, etc., because one very rarely knows an individual’s exact makeup. But “mulatto” is useful and I intend to use it. I may even increase my use of it.

    • dd121

      I love to refer to Obama as a mulatto to my liberal friends. Drives them crazy but it’s 100% accurate.

      • Who Me?

        I do not believe that Barack Obama, Senior was the biological father of his purported son. For one thing even though his mother was white, President Obama is far too light skinned to have been sired by a pure black African. I unfortunately, have mulatto relatives whose mothers are white, and their fathers were African-American, with arguably some mixture of white, and those children are far darker than Obama.

  • MBlanc46

    The political correctness Stalinists are at it again.

  • negrolocaust

    personally, i like “lawn jockey”

    • Alexandra1973

      “Hoodrat” is good enough for me.

  • Fighting_Northern_Spirit

    Yahoo’s message boards treat “mulatto” as a swear word. I agree, it is. The very concept is offensive to me, that such genetic pollution could occur.

  • JohnEngelman

    Some people say that my use of the word “Oriental” is derogatory. How can it be derogatory for me to say, “Orientals have a lower crime rate than whites?”

  • PvtCharlieSlate

    I suppose “Zinjanthropus malus ignoramus” is too much of a mouthful so how about calling them just “Zinjas”?

    • Sharps Rifle

      I prefer plain old “spook.”

  • Frank_DeScushin

    I see nothing wrong with the term mulatto. When you hear mulatto you instantly think a black-white mix. When you hear mixed-race or biracial, however, that could be anything — black-white, black-Asian, Asian-white, anything. Why not just go with the term that takes the guessing out of the equation? Besides, there are sites like ‘Mulatto Diaries’ where mulattoes self-identify as mulatto and see nothing negative with the term (regardless of it’s origins).

    • r j p

      Mixed-race minimizes stigma of being half black.

    • David Ashton

      The “trouble” is that it is a diminutive of a word for a mule, the offspring of a donkey with huge jaws or someone who smuggles drugs from the Caribbean into Anglo countries.

  • Jon Doe

    Mexicans are Mexicans, Asians are Asians, Irish is Irish, Russian is Russian, Blacks are African American? Does anyone here identify as a German-American, or how about Australian American? Anyone? Hmm..?

    • Alexandra1973

      If I wanted to get technical, I could identify as a British-Scottish-German-French-Polish-Cherokee-Canadian-American. (I had ancestors in Canada, but they had migrated from Germany to New York to Ontario, then on to Michigan.)

      I’ll just stick with American. My ancestors on my mother’s side settled here in the 17th century.

  • Truth Teller

    Sure are self absorbed aren’t they? The article reminds me of working with blacks. Endless blabbering about nothing and never, never ever getting down to what needs to be done.

  • Truth Teller

    I remember when they came up with people of color. They got all offended with the word colored and changed it to negro then black then African American which I agree is too long and cumbersome.
    For a while they were demanding people of color and charging racism if Whites neglected to use it. Only such petty low IQ minds could get all upset about the difference between people of color and colored people. Sometimes blacks remind me of cranky, tired 5 year olds picking a fight about nothing. They are so childish. Maybe they need a nap.

  • Truth Teller

    Gays demanded the change from queer or homo to gay. So they got it. But within a year there were public service announcements on TV claiming that gay was a slur and demanding that children particularly stop saying “that’s gay” as a negative observation.
    Now even using the word gay is considered bullying and grounds fro school suspension or for an employee a maoist style sensitivity session .

    • Alexandra1973

      Which is why I’m leery of this anti-bullying campaign. Who decides what’s bullying?

      I say this as someone who was bullied a LOT up until I entered high school and the bullies dropped out after their second year of ninth grade.

    • David Ashton

      They now have “Queer” Studies at “uni”.

  • Truth Teller

    I told my friend who has been saddled with managing black parolees working in a supermarket about the term obsolete farm equipment. So now we use the term OFE.
    He’s really having a hard time trying to keep a department going without getting himself and the company sued for racism. Word from corporate is to cater to the blacks to avoid lawsuits.

  • ShermanTMcCoy

    We just refer to them as ‘boons.

    • Sick of it

      My grandpa used to do exactly that…they just laughed about it back then.

  • Grantland

    I call them subhuman stink-animals because that’s just what they are.

  • Whitetrashgang

    For the last time there avg IQ is 70 so I just call them 70s. Yeah I was watching the 70s show last night, works like a charm.

  • Raydonn

    “Uniformity is our greatest strength”

  • Bossman

    That is probably more logical and scientific.

  • Joe blow

    They keep rebranding a defective, inferior product, and expect it to sell.

  • Brian

    A rose by any other name…would still spell defeat.

  • Brian

    White = occidental
    Asian = oriental
    Black = accidental

    (I doubt many of their births are planned).

    • Alexandra1973

      I’ve heard people claiming it’s racist to refer to Chinese as “oriental.”

      Pretty stupid. Oriental means Eastern, doesn’t it? Just means they’re from the Eastern Hemisphere.

      • Brian

        I resent the insistence (who came up with this anyway?) on ‘Asian’, because it destroys precision in language. Asia is a huge place, and we need a term that doesn’t include Azerbaijanis, Indians, or Afghans. If they don’t want ‘yellow man’, they get Oriental. And I use ‘occidental’ for the west.

        ‘Mixed-race’ is the same problem– it’s vague. Could refer to half-Hispanic, half-Chinese. Mulatto only means black/white, so it’s still useful.

      • David Ashton

        Unless you’re sitting on a Pacific island.

      • Katherine McChesney

        It isn’t racist but it is incorrect. I have Chinese friends who firmly corrected me on proper usage. “Oriental” is reference to articles and food, but East Asian is proper for human beings.

        I choose to follow what my helpful Chinese friends instructed me. It’s out of respect for them.

        • indoctrination_FAIL

          You and I collided on this before. Lower-case “oriental” refers to carpets, ceramics, furniture, art, etc., but Orientals are the people who create those things–just as Occidentals are people like me, and you, KM.

          Your respect for the feelings of your Oriental friends does you credit, but no Oriental dictates how I use my language. They’re not my friends, and they should butt out.

    • Who Me?

      Dey mammy’s planned em to get dat welfare check.

  • Malgus

    I remember seeing a list somewhere of all the terms blacks used to self-identify over the years.. as I remember, every 20 years or so, they changed it to something else.

    I don’t particularly care what they use to self-identify or what is considered politically correct these days… not my problem. Never has been, never will be.

    If they don’t like how I refer to them, let them ook and eek and fling poo… so what?

  • WR_the_realist

    If we can’t use mulatto or quadroon, how about Thank-God-I-Have-Some-White-in-Me?

    We know that whatever word is used to denote “black person” it will eventually be regarded as offensive because of the average behavior of the group to which it refers.

  • Bantu_Education

    Until about 12 years ago the “Cape Coloureds” of Cape Town had an annual singing, marching, and getting paralytic drunk festival popularly called the “Coon Carnival”. The ANC insisted they change the name to the “Cape Minstrels Carnival” which they eventually did, although against a lot of opposition. A young coloured guy who worked for me was opposed to the change “because it has always been called the Coon Carnival”.

  • David Ashton

    The problem with “mixed-race” (an adjective rather than a noun) is that anti-“racists” don’t believe in “race”!!! However, so long as “non-whites” make up a numerical minority they will compete for benefits from the “white” (present) majority, so some identification terminology is likely to persist. In Britain, we have an ethnic census classification which illogically combines pigmentation with nationality. “Mulatto” and “hybrid” are “unacceptable”, and the question arises as to whether someone 50% of whose genes are derived from a “white” parent and 50% from a “non-white” is entitled to 100% of benefits, 50% or zero.

    Historically, a Mulatto was usually a cross between a N*gr* and a “White”. A Mestizo usually a cross between an “Indian” and a “White”. A Zambo a cross between an Indian and a N*gr* (in Spanish America, “sambo” being “offensive” in Anglo cultures). Then in the USA you have Melungeons who are crosses of all three, but about as numerous as “Chingroes” in the [British] Commonwealth.

    I haven’t got a complete list to hand of all the enormous skin-classifications in Portuguese Brazil, from Alva through Loira-clara (my favourite) and Preta to Verde, which could be a warning looking-glass future for multiracial USA and Canada, unless the Chinese take you over, but adjacent Mexico once provided a few simple Hispanic distinctions: Mulatto, Mestizo, Moor, Albino, Wolf, Zambiago, Coyote…&c.

    Something to look foward to?

  • Sick of it

    You can tell this lady lives in an ivory tower. Where I live, people still use terms like ‘high yeller’, mulatto, and quadroon on a regular basis.

  • Sick of it

    The definition of Asian 3,000 years ago was dramatically different from the modern definition.

  • Whirlwinder

    I suppose high yellow is not good?

  • Whirlwinder

    Islam uses the term “abd” for their black slaves. This term has no connotation here in America. Perhaps we could borrow it from Islam>