Erin Aubry Kaplan: "Negro" Needs to be Retired





[Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to the LA Times.]

America's Negro problem just won't quit. The Census Bureau has been using the term "Negro" as a racial identifier on its decennial forms since 1950, later joined -- though not supplanted -- by "black" and "African Am." But when the website thegrio.com recently pointed out that "Negro" was going to appear once more on the 2010 census, many black folks reacted with shock and pointed distaste. Bloggers and pundits condemned the term as a relic of the bad old days of segregation and Jim Crow that has no business in official records anymore....

I get why. Though it was the accepted term until the late '60s, for those born after that, "Negro" is something they never answered to, a word that sounds only slightly less incendiary than "nigger." Even older blacks tend to use it ironically or sarcastically when they use it at all, as in: "Those Negroes just can't get it together." Its taint goes back to slavery, when Southerners paternalistically referred to even free blacks as "our Negroes." Contrast this unpleasantness with Barack Obama, who has established a 21st century standard of racial consideration that's figuring into just about every discussion of color these days. To blacks of all ages, "Negro" and President Obama sharing the same era just feels wrong -- maybe he isn't post-racial, but isn't he at least post-Negro?...

Like the president, I am part of that black generation whose lifetime spans pretty much all of the above. I was born a Negro in 1962 -- it's on my birth certificate -- and in short order became black, Afro-American and African American. Although I appreciate the impulse for self-definition and self-determination that attended each of these name changes, I can't say that any of them has impacted my life in any measurable way. I will say that I've never liked "African American" -- too cumbersome and self-conscious. Nor does it cover the African diaspora in America as neatly as the word "black," which most people of color I know use most commonly to describe themselves....

That's acknowledged in the fact that, controversy notwithstanding, nobody today quibbles with the names of advocacy groups such as the National Council of Negro Women. In his civil rights rhetoric, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly infused "the Negro" with urgency and even poetry, turning the isolation and alienation of the phrase into a powerful part of his argument for racial inclusion. Black leaders before him did the same thing with the often pejorative "the colored man." But that was then, and this is now: "Negro" is officially the last of the oppressor appellations, and for many people it's past time to retire it for good....


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