If you’ve been keeping up on current events in the U.S., then you’ve probably heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter”. Were you aware that this phrase is also a political movement? However, this article is not about race relations in the U.S. but rather the fact that in the States, terms used to refer to non-white races is a constantly moving target.
Growing up in the 80s, I learned that political correctness in addressing others was paramount to showing respect, and this was especially true when addressing people of different races, which resulted in black people being referred to as African-American. However, when I asked my friend Daphne what she preferred, she simply said, “I’m black,” and this feeling appears to be shared by young people today who rightfully state that they have no ties to the continent of Africa and are, therefore, black Americans.
Black people under slavery were referred to as what most polite people now refer to as the n-word. It holds such ugliness that we often treat it like a profanity and avoid saying it; hence, the n-word. It’s difficult to hear some young people here using the word due to its presence in some hip-hop music, especially since they may not realise the historic connotations of the word, and they might feel that they are simply emulating their favourite rap artist. Regardless, they should be made aware that the n-word used by someone who is not black is often viewed as highly offensive.
At one point in American history, black people were identified as negroes. This seems slightly less offensive than the n-word as the word is a translation of the word black from Portuguese and Spanish. There are some organisations that still include the word in their name, for example, the United Negro College Fund. Yet this term was often used during the time of segregation in the U.S. and as a result, some people rejected it and started to use the term Afro-American, but this fell out of favour, perhaps due to the fact that afro was also used to describe a hairstyle.
There was also a point where racial minorities in the U.S., but more specifically black people, were referred to as coloured people and are still sometimes called people of colour. There still exists the organisation the NAACP, which stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If you think about it though, isn’t everybody a colour? Some people believe that this term is used for those who view white as the basic complexion and all other skin tones “of colour”.
Moreover, people come in many shades of black and brown. Earlier in the last century, children of one white parent and one black parent were called mulattos. Some sources say that this came from the Spanish or Portuguese word for mule or mula, which is a mixed breed of horse and donkey, and it was considered a derogatory term for these children. Therefore, the term biracial took over in the second half of the 20th century. Nowadays, this term is under scrutiny as it limits a person’s identity to only two races, which brings us to the current the term mixed-race.
A person could lose their mind over trying to learn how to refer to people of a certain race. Biracial or Mixed Race? African-American or Black American? Indian or Native American? How can we be sure to hit that moving target just right in order to avoid offence? Just ask. Ask the person which term they use for themselves. It may be uncomfortable, but as part of an open discussion, people should not mind explaining their point of view. At the end of the day, we’re all human and asking is the only way to learn.
Nancy Lee, responsable del Servei d’Idiomes d’UManresa