Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is Negro the New "N" Word?

People in this country may have too much time on their hands, may be not hungry enough, haven't possibly been given enough trouble in their lives to know the difference between nitpicking and matters worthy of battle. I say this after seeing an article at Time about whether the U.S. Census should stop using the word "Negro."

I saw this controversy coming after observing how folks ripped into Sen. Harry Reid's using the term "Negro dialect." I had to agree with linguist (and I've heard conservative) John McWhorter on his assessment of our double standards and ignorance. I might add our fear of being unlovable is a factor as well.

It seems we are getting to the point when any word is offensive or we will be offended even if it means we have to resurrect outdated debates such as colored versus Negro versus black versus Afro-American versus African-American. However, I do know of valid objections to the use of the word "Negro" regarding its origins, a label crafted through a fallacious division of the human species into race.

It's that same division that gave us the words Caucasoid for white people and Mongoloid to refer to Asians. However, if you attack the word "Negro" from that standpoint, then perhaps you are arguing that we do away with all references to race. Not a bad idea, but believe me, we humans would come up with another way to classify ourselves that means the same thing, has the same positive and negative connotations.

Anyway, in July 2008, I wrote a post at, The Season of Our Discontent: Life With the 'N' Word, which is about the word "nigger" and in that essay, I said that how we use even the word "Negro" is about intent.
If anything, the history of the use of the "n" word points to whites mishandling language and black slaves, who could have been beaten for reading books, adopting their masters' bad habits. The word is a mispronunciation of the word "Negro." Furthermore, when you consider how segregationists used even the word, "Negro," you realize insult comes through intent with tone. You may have heard someone, for instance, refer to an African-American woman as that "black" girl, and you knew that the acknowlegment that the woman is black was in itself the insult in the person's mind.

Some Americans show that they believe the word black itself may be the insult when in an effort to be politically correct are afraid to describe an African-American as "black." Somewhere in their hearts these PC people sense that black, being the opposite of white and all things perceived as good in this society, may be the bad thing. (Nordette Adams, Season of Our Discontent)
As I said earlier, Time magazine has an article, "Should the Census Be Asking People if They Are Negro?" Here is the opening:
Use of the word Negro to describe a black person has largely fallen out of polite conversation — except on the U.S. Census questionnaire. There, under "What is this person's race?" is an option that reads, "Black, African Am., or Negro." That has raised the ire of certain black activists and politicians as the Census Bureau gears up to mail out its once-a-decade questionnaires. The controversy has been cast by many as an instance of a tone-deaf agency not keeping up with the times. In actuality, the flash point represents a much larger theme: the often contentious way the Census both reflects and forges our evolving understanding of race.

The immediate reason the word Negro is on the Census is simple enough: in the 2000 Census, more than 56,000 people wrote in Negro to describe their identity — even though it was already on the form. Some people, it seems, still strongly identify with the term, which used to be a perfectly polite designation. To blindly delete it is to risk incorrectly counting the unknown number of (presumably older) black Americans who identify with the term. (Read more: at Time)
Jesus! Help us. In our ignorance we attack symptoms, never the disease. And we know that we black people, as a group, will not agree on what we should be called either. Some of us don't want to be us under any circumstance, by any name.

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