Question About Epithets

I realize the N-word is a racial epithet. Even when I lived in the Deep South as a child, I was never comfortable with others who derided blacks as “n*****s”.

On the other hand, it was always my understanding that “negro” was a technical reference to blacks, and not a racial slur. In elementary school, that was the term by which we referred to blacks. My third-grade teacher in Ohio–who was black–taught that way. My fifth-grade teacher in Florida–who was black–taught that way. We all, I am sure, heard of the United Negro College Fund.

For many years, I referred to blacks as negroes, because it was my understanding that this was more technical. In high school, a black person told me, “Chill, Amir. You can call us “blacks”; it’s not offensive.” From then on, I always referred to blacks using that term.

I’ve never accepted the term “African-American” as a legitimate means of referring to blacks, as (a) most American blacks are from America, not from Africa, (b) the term excludes American blacks who are from Central America, and (c) the term excludes non-American blacks.

Referring to blacks as “coloreds” was not as widely used, although most of the blacks I knew back then didn’t take offense at it. We’ve all heard of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Now, it seems, the standard for what constitutes an epithet is getting even wider, as “negro” is now a racial slur (emphasis mine):

Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader used a racial epithet to insult Barack Obama in a message posted Wednesday, describing the president-elect in demeaning terms that imply he does the bidding of whites.

The message appeared chiefly aimed at persuading Muslims and Arabs that Obama does not represent a change in U.S. policies. Ayman al-Zawahri said in the message, which appeared on militant Web sites, that Obama is “the direct opposite of honorable black Americans” like Malcolm X, the 1960s African-American rights leader.

In al-Qaida’s first response to Obama’s victory, al-Zawahri also called the president-elect — along with secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice — “house negroes.”

While I have no affections for al-Zawahiri–I would love to see our military kill him before Bush’s term ends–I would also take exception to the assertion that he used a racial epithet. Negro is a technical term. “House negro” would be a polite way of referring to the “house [n-word]”, which is what Harry Belafonte called Colin Powell.

So why is it a “racial epithet” when directed at a President elect, while it is perfectly ok that liberals use a much stronger term on Republican administration officials, who happen to be black?

So, for anyone who is more knowledgeable on race issues: when did “negro” become a racial slur and not a more technical, even if lesser-used, reference?

6 thoughts on “Question About Epithets

  1. got me.

    i’m sure it started in the public schools, though, which are not at the top of my happy list today anyway, so i’ll end my dissertation before it even begins right here.

  2. It is the context in which it was used in this case. Given the derogatory context in either example most thinking, caring people from either side of the aisle would believe it is wrong. It is not a question here if people are liberal or not. It is terribly simplistic to lump such a diverse group as liberals into such a narrow perception of intent. I am not Belafonte and do not agree with what he said. In the reverse I would never condemn all conservatives from a statement made by only one of them.

  3. I totally agree with you.

    And by the way, isn’t the world supposed to love the US now that Obama has been elected? How can this be???

    We are in so much trouble.

  4. Roger: I could accept your answer, if the term “negro” was called an epithet in only that context.

    Trouble is, Lindsey Lohan referred to Obama as a “Colored” President, and got panned for having used an epithet. Why is it “racist” in that context? Aside from the fact that Lohan has very little going on between her ears, the term “colored” is a light slang term that I grew up with many blacks and whites (in their presence) use, with no racist intent at all.

    Now, all of a sudden, it’s a slur.

    I’m just asking when terms like “negro”–a technical term–and “colored” started becoming accepted as “slurs” rather than technical terms (in the case of “negro”) and general terms of referral (as in the case of “colored”).

  5. I agree with Amir that -hypenated American types are a bad idea; but I accept that this “African-American” is the “term of art” that can be used without anyone taking real or imaginary offense; so I’m o.k. with using it even if it is not entirely descriptive. I actually know Africans (and people from the Caribbean) in my social and medical circles, and so I use “African” and “Carribean” when need be.

  6. Interesting sidelight: In Canada, many blacks strongly object to the use of “African Canadian”. The reason: More than 60% of blacks in Canada are of Caribbean origin, with that portion divided roughly equally between those of Jamaican origin and those with roots in the rest of the Caribbean. Most of those who object to “African Canadian” are of Caribbean origin and believe the term minimizes their culture and history.

    As a result, the most widely used umbrella term for Canadians with roots in sub-Saharan Africa, whether directly from Africa or via some other part of the world is… get ready for this…

    Black Canadian

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