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Articles > Culture November, 23, 2015

Has the term ‘black’ become politically incorrect?

Topaz Lynch
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5.05 / 10

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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