Don’t Use the Word “Negro” Unless You Are 167 Years Old

I wish I felt as shiny as the crosses on The Church of Saint Rachel.  I seem to have caught myself a cold.  Or just a cough.  I can’t tell yet.  My chest is congested but my head is fairly clear.  I think people aren’t covering their mouths when they cough in front of their computers and I’ve gotten sick digitally.

(I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten it from my mom who’s had a wicked bad cough for over a week and a half now.)

This week was punctuated by a conversation I started on facebook about the word “titties”.  I dislike the word.  I stated that I think it’s one of the worst words in the world.  I didn’t think deeply about it – I heard a food blogger say “titties” in a post and I was much struck with how awful it sounds.  This is the power words have – to have an immediate impact on the person reading or hearing them.  But talking about words is interesting because when you start digging for explanations for your strong reactions to them – there’s often an underlying rational reason for disliking or loving a word or expression.  So a conversation was launched which organically evolved into a debate about whether words can actually be “bad” which withered into a discussion about political correctness and how an acquaintance of mine thinks “negro” is a perfectly acceptable way to refer to a black person.

I know what you’re thinking “Maybe he ‘s a hundred and sixty seven year old civil war veteran.”

I assure you this is a man younger than me who apparently hasn’t gotten the memo yet that words are powerful and white people should never call black people “negros” because it brings up a whole emotional cocktail of cultural memories of tar and feathering and burning crosses and slavery and – so much disregard for the rights and the feelings and the humanity of the black people in this country.  This young man argued that “negro” is simply the Spanish word for “black” and words are just words and are just a means of communication.

He said he feels totally comfortable using the word “negro” to refer to black people.  I wish I had asked him if he actually DOES this but I won’t because I had to shut down the conversation and block him from seeing any more of my posts so I won’t yell at him.  He claims to have no patience with all this political correctness crap and refuses to play along with it.

I have to tell you that this whole conversation upset me so much that I got knots in my stomach.  I promise I did listen to his point of view and I did remain respectful while trying to impress on him the gut wrenchingly awful insensitivity of his words.  He’s right – words are a means of communication and his words communicated a hell of a lot to me about his disregard for the feelings of those around him.  It’s more than that though.  Any person who knows how charged the word “negro” is and uses it anyway is, in fact, racist.  Racism has two main components at its core: fear and disrespect.  To know that “negro” is a disrespectful way to refer to a person of color and use it anyway IS TO DISRESPECT THEM.  I recognize that there are degrees to everything and to disrespect a person or a group of people doesn’t automatically mean you hate them – but to know you might be shoving an emotional knife in someone’s gut and do it anyway is a hateful thing to do.

I am not always politically correct myself.  I get it.  We need to hold onto the power of words.  We can’t go around insisting that words not be used just because they might have negative connotations.  Life is full of negative situations and we need a way to communicate that effectively.  I happen to love the word whore.  It’s not the kind of word you can just fling around though.  I would never actually call a promiscuous woman a whore because being sexually liberated is not a moral failing and the word whore implies fallen “virtue”.  I also wouldn’t call a prostitute a whore.  I would much rather call a John a whore.

I DO call myself a ketchup whore.

But there are a few words in our language that have such a powerful link to heinous events in history and periods of time when men and women behaved shamefully towards other humans and to use those words is to conger up a world of hate and pain for those you use them on.  “Nigger” is one of them and though “Negro” might seem less harmful – the only people who ever referred to black Americans as negros were people who were born long before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s during which it was made plain that black people do not ever want to hear white people refer to them using those words again.

So to be a white person and use those words to describe a black person is to knowingly disrespect them and is racist behavior. No one who was alive after the civil rights movement can claim not to have known how charged those words are.

I’m sharing this because I can’t believe I had this conversation with a peer.  I hear white people complain about black people (and liberal people of all colors) using the “race card” as they stupidly like to call it.  I hear people complaining about how people are always trying to make everything about race.  They’re so tired of having to have this conversation over and over again.  Boo hoo, buttheads.  I use the word “buttheads” completely aware of it’s negative connotations.

Here’s a rule of thumb when choosing words to describe people: avoid using any kind of condemnation that attacks things about a person that they do not have the power to change.  Skin color.  Origin of birth.  Their sexual orientation.  How many limbs they have or don’t have.  Whether they can walk or not.  The brain they were born with.  What gender they are.  Where they were born.

What you can question and condemn: people’s behaviors towards other people.  Assholes can be called out because assholes can stop being assholes if they choose to.  Chauvinists can change their attitude about women.  Racists can choose to change their attitudes about other races.

So I call out all the assholes who think race is such a tired conversation.  So boring.  Those assholes who say “What racism?  There’s no racism anymore.  You’re just puffing smoke out your asses because you don’t want to admit that it’s suspicious that our president is black and wasn’t born in the contiguous United States.  Hawaii barely counts.”

There is racism all over the world.  On every continent.  In every country.  And every race has racists.  We all know about the white people who hate black people.  Did you know about the black people who hate Latino people?  Did you know about the Asian people who hate black people?  How about the white people who hate Asian people.  Or about the Latino people who hate white people.  And yes, there are black people who hate white people.  Haters come in every race.

So until there is no racism left – it will always be part of the conversation.  So get over it.  This isn’t a political game.  It’s about humans evolving enough to stop attaching value judgements based on skin pigment.

We are not born racists.  We learn that hate.  We have the choice to lose that hate or perpetuate it.  We may not get to choose who we are when we’re born but we all get to choose who we become.

My unsolicited advice to you today is: unless you want to sound like a 167 year old civil war veteran or are actually racist don’t fucking use the word “negro”.

3 comments

  1. Elaine says:

    Hello. I totally disagree with you about the word negro. In case you are unaware of it, Martin Luther King , Jr. used the word negro many times in lots of speeches. This includes his very famous I Have A Dream speech. MLK used the word negro in this speech about fifteen times. How is it racist to use the same word that Martin Luther King used to describe the Black race? By the way, Malcolm X also used the word negro to describe black people in his speeches and his autobiography.

    • angelina says:

      I asked my African American twitter followers what they think about white people referring to black people as “negro” and I only got one answer back and here it is “I thiink they either really want to use the other n-word or they’re elderly.”

      Which is exactly what I was saying in this post.

  2. angelina says:

    Yes, but they were both black. Black people also sometimes refer to themselves as “niggers” but that doesn’t make it okay for white people to do it. I’m white.

    Are you black? Because if you’re black and cool with white people calling referring to you as a negro – that’s your prerogative.

    But if you’re white like me, it’s not cool to use that expression any more. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X can refer to themselves any way they like – and also that was a long time ago. Times have changed and what is acceptable now is different than what was acceptable to the previous generation.

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