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Articles > Culture November, 23, 2015

Has the term ‘black’ become politically incorrect?

Topaz Lynch
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Black. When you first hear the word, what pops into your mind? Black magic, the black death, the colour you wear to a funeral? How about white – more likely purity and innocence.

Language has a massive impact over our subconscious thinking, and our awareness of this is why political correctness has recently become so important. Although seen as a more politically correct term to describe race, ‘black’ seems to me to have become tarnished. Maybe it’s time for a change in our vocabulary.

Is calling someone 'black' politically correct?

Photo by
Garry Knight

As the child of an interracial couple, I myself have been called terms I’ve found offensive, which are now not used thanks to political correctness. For example, the term “half-caste” may seem harmless to a non-biracial person, but the word’s connotations are definitely hurtful to me, implying “half of a human”. Political correctness has stopped words like this being generally used, helping protect the minority “muted group” and showing how terms can be subconsciously derogatory.

Without this growing consciousness of how what we say affects people, people of colour could still be referred to as the offensive ‘n****rs’. Since this term originated from the era of slavery, political correctness serves a clear purpose here – as we know, in 2015 it isn’t seen as generally acceptable to use those terms. However, the word ‘black’ is usually seen as different, since it doesn’t have this same disturbing background. Yet there are some people who find the term ‘black’ offensive – has it run its course and in turn become politically incorrect?

The linguist Steven Pinker coined the term ‘euphemistic treadmill’, meaning a constant moving on from previous terms to new, more acceptable vocabulary. For example, in the past ‘coloured’ was seen as the PC word to use to describe black people; but some people found this offensive as it seemed divisive, labelling that person as in some way different from the norm. It also in a way removes ethnic identity by reducing all nationalities to a single word. Now all hell breaks loose when ‘coloured’ is used. Maybe ‘black’ has also had its day. Maybe it’s time for something new to take over.

Logically, if an English speaker constantly hears the word ‘black’ surrounded by negative connotations in society, then they are likely to feel negatively towards someone described by that term. But they could feel differently if the same person was described as ‘African/Caribbean British’ A study at Emory University, seeking to discover how people feel towards the terms ‘Black’ and ‘African-American’, showed that black people thought they were interchangeable, but white participants felt “the racial label ‘Black'” suggested a person with lower socioeconomic status than ‘African-American.’ Crazy. This evidence surely shows a problem with the connotations of ‘black’. But then we’re faced with the problem: what should we use instead?

Nowadays many suggest different races should integrate as ‘one’, with racial terms eradicated completely. The importance of language in society means the mentality of “seeing neither black nor white” could end a lot of issues present in today’s society. Although here in the UK identifying people by their race isn’t particularly common – I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone introduce themselves as “African-British” – ‘African-American’ is frequently used in the States. Perhaps even this practice, meant simply to label an individual’s ethnicity, actually encourages social inequality.

The negative connotations of ‘black’ are affecting the thoughts of English speakers, although more with white people’s preconceptions of what ‘black’ means. Black people themselves don’t seem to feel uncomfortable with the term. So if it’s time for a new word to describe black British people, the trouble is then what description to use. Although African/Caribbean-British are possibilities, personally – though I am obviously proud of my roots – I don’t feel a connection with those terms. I was born here in the UK, so why should I be tied down to a label which doesn’t directly describe myself? Until we come up with a new term, we have to either live with the one we have, or avoid using any racial terms at all. Which do you think is better?

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  1. Georgina Price

    I think we should avoid using any racial terms, I can understand wanting to hold on to your identity and heritage of where you came from, but I think calling yourself ‘black’ or any other term immediately labels you as one thing or another and in effect separates you from everyone else. I also think everyone is capable of being more than just the label of their ethnic identity, and by calling yourself ‘black’ or any other term, that person immediately creates a small divide between themselves and anyone who doesn’t identify by that term, they then become that ‘black’ person or that ‘white’ person as opposed to the girl who is good at football or the lady across the road who bakes lovely cakes. When we separate ourselves in to groups we become competitive and try to present ourselves as better than the ‘other’ group, or try to suggest negativity about the other group. This would lead to any term being considered negative if it described a group of people who are different from ourselves and our own group. I hope that made sense.

  2. Nancy

    I think… It really doesn’t matter at all, it’s all well and good that you want a world where labels don’t matter but label do matter and are impotant because as you just said you honk African british would be better it’s a mouth full and still a label just cause in america they use African American doesn’t make the way they say any less racist. The one question I have is exactly how do know that the word black makes black people uncomfortable, because it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. In life it’s never about the words it matters about how they are used(said),

  3. MJC

    Whether the term ‘black’ is politically correct or incorrect is not the issue here – the descriptive word itself is factually incorrect, just as much as ‘white’ is incorrect for describing someone with pale skin.
    If we needed to describe someone in the example that @Dee Dixon mentions, then skin colour is very much a part of that, just as the colour of someone’s hair is or whether they have a distinctive feature like a small pointy nose, or big ears, or big lips.
    However, very few people on the planet, if any, are truly black-skinned. The same can be said for white skin – no one has truly white skin. We are, as @Izzie describes with her examples, just a shade of browns, oranges and pinks along a spectrum.
    This is especially true when you consider that very few people on the planet are actually from a distinctive race, except for perhaps the odd tribe in South America or Africa which hasn’t had any contact with the rest of society for hundreds of years.
    The word ‘race’ is simply not applicable in the modern world, while the term ‘racist’ is simply wrong – the disgusting people who hold prejudice against those of a certain skin colour(s) are better described as ‘pigmantist’ (for want of a more accurate and/or derogatory word for them).
    If a person has parents or grandparents or great grandparents with significantly different skin colour to each other, how then do they define themselves under today’s socially acceptable terms?
    At what shade of pale does someone stop being ‘caucasian’ or ‘mediterranean’, where do all the boundaries lie?
    The fact is, there are no boundaries, so why should our language define people in such ways, especially with such disparate and incorrect descriptors as ‘black’ and ‘white’?
    In the UK, a lot of people describe themselves as being BAME, but that alone states that “I distinguish myself from others because of the colour of my skin and would like to be considered differently”, which is surely wrong.

  4. Dee Dixon

    I think it’s ridiculous how things have become so complicated. If white is a colour and black is a colour , then it’s black and white!!! If you are trying to describe someone to perhaps a police officer as a witness to something, if the offender was white you would say so, if he was black you have to say so, otherwise it will be almost impossible for some people to describe another person correctly! We need to get a grip on this, it is going beyond a joke.

  5. Holli

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion however I believe that there is a specific time and place. No body should be judged for their skin colour. Just because some black people make mistakes doesn’t mean the rest have to suffer. It’s not fair an not equal. I’m basically saying you can’t judge the whole race for one mans actions.

  6. M. Chicheley

    I’m white, and I’m absolutely fine with people describing me as white. What I don’t understand is why people with black skin make a fuss when people describe them as “black” – it’s just an adjective that describes them. Be proud of who you are, instead of making a fuss about something minor, because, believe me, that gets people annoyed at you, and does not help your cause at all, maybe encouraging people to become extreme in their racial terminology.

  7. Mya Brown

    I think that society labelled black people. Which separates all the races and we are all individuals instead instead of one whole community of people based on the colour of our skin.

  8. Izzie

    How about different intensities of coffee! Latte, Mocha, Espresso 😉

    Or other sweet things – Vanilla, Fudge, Caramel, Chocolate.

    Sorted.

  9. Carl

    Topaz, I believe like Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe you are partly making something out of nothing…at least when he did it…he was funny:

    1. Racism will never end as long as White
    cars are still using black tyres.
    2. Racism will never end as long we still
    wash first White clothes, then other
    colours later.
    3. Racism will never end if people still use
    Black to symbolise bad luck and White for
    peace!
    4. Racism will never end if people still wear
    white clothes to weddings and black
    clothes to the funerals.
    5. Racism will never end as long as those
    who don’t pay their bills are blacklisted not
    White listed. Even when playing the pool
    (snooker), you haven’t won until you sink
    the black ball, and the white ball must
    remain on the field.
    But I Don’t Care ,So Long As
    I’m Still Using The WHITE
    Toilet Paper To Wipe My ASS, I
    ‘m Still FINE!
    -President Mugabe

    On a serious note, I use the term “Afro-Caribbean” which my friends with Africa/Caribbean origins are fine with. Being born and brought up in the UK they consider themselves British and in particular support Britain/England on all sporting fronts with great enthusiasm.

    You say – ‘Without this growing consciousness of how what we say affects people, people of colour could still be referred to as the offensive ‘n****rs’ – when it is now so commonly used in music videos (by mainly Afro Caribbean artists) in the positive context of friendship – hell even one of my Afro-Caribbean colleagues at work said to me one morning – “waszup my n****r?” – and my origins are from the sub-continent!

    It is interesting though that:
    – I am not referred to as “Brown”
    – or that my Oriental friends – “Yellow” – although there is the term Yellow Fever which is used to refer to people that have an attraction to Orientals…although that’s for another article.
    – or that my Latin friends – “Olive” – although some of them do distance themselves from the term “White” or “White boy” and say they are “Olive” skinned.

    Happy Days! C