Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2004/ 21 Shevat, 5764
Yes, Selma, there is a Negro
A short but to the point letter came in from a reader regarding one of my recent columns. In the piece I made the statement, "Martin Luther King Jr. was a great champion of civil rights for the American Negro." The reader (whose first name is Selma, interestingly enough) wrote to inform me that (and this is a direct quote) "NEGRO is a word that is EXTINCT." Hmmmm. While I appreciate my reader's basic good intention in attempting to bring me up to date concerning contemporary word usage, I must in all due respect take issue with her.
Yes, Selma, the word Negro is rarely used today, but it is not yet "extinct," as you put it. There are numerous organizations which still use the word as part of their name; the United Negro College Fund and National Council of Negro Women are two notable examples. Books and scholarly articles are written all the time in which "Negro" is used as a racial classification.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (third edition - 1996) defines the word Negro as follows; "1. A member of a major human racial division traditionally distinguished by physical characteristics such as brown to black pigmentation and often tightly curled hair, especially one of various peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. 2. A person of Negro descent." Nowhere does the dictionary definition state or imply that the word is archaic, outmoded, or offensive (as the dictionary tends to do for many other words).
Having said that, the question is - are there people who take offense at the use of the word, Negro? Oh, sure there are. But guess what - you'll always find people who take offense at any number of words. If you attempt to only use words that will be completely acceptable to everyone, you may very likely find that you possess about the same vocabulary as, say, a mollusk. Not everyone agrees on what the proper designation for blacks should be. Some people are even offended at the word, "black" being used as a description for a race. While the term "people of color" is considered okay, the term "colored people" is considered offensive.
African-American, the current label of choice for most followers of political correctness, is nonetheless objected to by many who consider it cumbersome and narrow in its definition. Many esteemed black writers refuse to use the terms African American and Afro-American on the grounds that they don't represent the history of blacks from the West Indies or imply an African allegiance not felt by all American blacks.
Martin Luther King Jr. proudly used the term Negro in his speeches, although many would argue that that was 40 years ago and times have changed. Times have indeed changed - where we once had "Negro" entertainers like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, we now have "African American" entertainers like P. Ditty and Janet Jackson.
I don't know how I'd feel about all this if I were black. But I'd like to think that if I WERE black I'd be much more offended at the culture that has embraced gangsta rappers with all their vulgar language, women-hating violence, ugly tattoos and body piercing than I would be by the word Negro. Negro may be an old-fashioned term but there's truly nothing inherently wrong with the word - it is literally Spanish for black. Yes, the word has been altered and used as an offensive racial epithet, but other group names, such as Hebrew and Spanish, have been maligned in the same way and yet we don't stop using those.
When special interest lobbying groups decide to change the name of an entire race of people and claim to speak for ALL of them, I become a little suspect. There's usually more going on there than celebrating ethnic pride. It might surprise some younger folk to learn that at one time people from Latin speaking countries used to be considered Caucasian. But there was no percentage in being part of the white group, so the brown group was born.
The name game is played with the brown group, too. Latinos was the initial designation for all, but when the feminist females freaked at being lumped into a male gender classification, they became their own group, the Latinas. Mexican Americans are likewise Chicanos and Chicanas. Hispanic at one time referred to people strictly from Latin America, now it is a catchall for everyone of Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American descent. And just as blacks don't all agree on what they should be called, not all people of brown skin color agree on these designations either.
Then we have the Oriental verses Asian thing. The racial designation of Oriental is considered to be a derogatory term now, having been replaced by Asian. But here's the kicker, not all people from Asia are of the yellow race. Yellow people used to be called Mongolians (I haven't heard that term used for years, so I'm pretty sure it must be considered derogatory too).
Back in prehistoric times, when I was in school, the three main racial groups of the world were Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid. As I understand it now, these racial divisions are no longer in scientific use. I don't think the scientists want any part of this mess. So now that the scientists have bailed out, everybody's on their own. We can all call ourselves anything we want - but just be careful what you call other people. Better check with your local ACLU before you mouth off. You never know what the new racial designations might be this year, and you certainly don't want to be caught wearing last year's ethnic label.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a
letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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© 2004 Greg Crosby