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What's in a name? 'Mixed,' 'biracial,' 'black'

Martha S. Jones | 2/19/2014, 10:03 a.m.
When the census listed Negro as a race option in 2010, a controversy erupted.
Martha S. Jones is a professor of history, law and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan. She is writing a family memoir on mixed-race identity. L- R: Martha Jones, Paul M Jones, Jr., her brother; and Laura F. Jones, her sister c. 1964 or 1965 in Port Washington, New York. Courtesy Martha S. Jones

— When the census listed Negro as a race option in 2010, a controversy erupted.

My students at the University of Michigan were eager to denounce the term's use: "Negro? It has to go!"

To their ears, "Negro" was derogatory, too close in tone to the other, more infamous n-word. I played devil's advocate, to test their thinking: "But some black elders still self-identify as Negroes." "It's preferable to its predecessor, colored."

"Don't some of you belong to the National Council of Negro Women chapter?"

I could not shake their thought.

I was confronting a generational divide. For my grandmother, "Negro" was a term of respect. To my students, it was an epithet.

It's no surprise that we feel unsettled when a new language of identity takes over the old. The language of race -- constructed variously in science, law, politics and culture -- has always been a moving target, and we aren't the first generation to confront it.

My CNN essay "Biracial and also black" generated a debate about the words we use to describe African-Americans. I called myself mixed-race, a phrase that includes identities rooted in multiple races.

Another term, biracial, some readers pointed out, assumes one identity borne out of two. It is, perhaps, too narrow for a discussion about identity in the 21st century.

Some readers also rejected the phrase "African-American," deeming it awkward and inaccurate. Renee wrote: "We are not from Africa, I was born here in the U.S. I don't know anyone there, can't even say my ancestors are from there."

Those who defended the use of African-American noted it was rooted in history, culture and personal choice. Others offered up alternatives, like "person of color," "black," "halfrican-American" and "mutt."

Some just preferred using a simple description: "human."

Words seem to fail us, even as they are all we have.

The debate from my essay illustrates how difficult it can be when we rely on linguistic conventions to express the complexity of human identities.

Even so, there are words that have fallen out of favor. No reader seriously proposed that I use a term like mulatto or quadroon instead of mixed-race.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these terms were widely used. Many of my paternal forebears were marked with an "M" or "Mu" for mulatto in census records.

Did they identify with this label? I cannot say for sure. But I do know that it was imposed upon them.

Until 1960, census enumerators chose the race. Someone had sized up my ancestors and decided they were mixed.

Among black Americans, ideas about the language of self-identification have changed over time.

In the early 19th century, black leaders also debated what names to give their religious and political organizations.

In the end they split. Churches adopted the term "African," as in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Political organizations opted for "Colored," as in the Colored National Convention of 1848. And while we often refer to it as the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization has kept the word "colored" in its name long after it has left common parlance.