Forget 'Negro'! Let's Go Back to 'Colored'!

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Apparently, the first buzzword of the new decade is one that's also decidedly old: "Negro." We're not even a month into 2010, and already the second most famous and despised N-word in the English language has reared its head on two separate occasions, rankling people of all colors and from every point on the political spectrum.

Last week, the New York Daily News reported that blacks in New York were upset over the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to include the racial designation "Negro" alongside "black" and "African American" on this decade's census form. Critics argued that it was an unnecessary atavism, while the bureau noted that the term's inclusion was an attempt to avoid ageism. "Many older African Americans identified themselves that way," said Census Bureau spokesman Jack Martin, "and many still do."

Then, over the weekend, a highly publicized passage from the new book Game Change—an insider look at the 2008 presidential election—found Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in even hotter water than the Census Bureau. The excerpt in question quotes Reid as saying he had high hopes for Barack Obama's then-impeding presidential candidacy, largely because Obama's "light skin" and lack of "Negro dialect" would be attractive to American voters.

On the Today show, Gwen Ifill did her best to dispatch with the nonsense that Reid's comments were at all malicious. (What's wrong with acknowledging the fact that a darker, less eloquent politician would have a harder go of it than Barack Obama?) But the damage had been done. Reid's comments will undoubtedly follow him for years to come—much like former Virginia Sen. George Allen is haunted by "macaca"—and that's due in no small part to the fact that the he didn't have the presence of mind to simply replace "Negro" with "urban" or "stereotypically black."

The census and the Senate majority leader are the latest to call into question what are and aren't acceptable terms for black Americans, but the battle has been waged among blacks for decades now. Obviously, "Negro" feels out-of-date, but older blacks say it, so perhaps it's not that bad. "Afro-American" also sounds dated, but in a less jagged way than "Negro." African American is the norm among the PC elite, despite the fact that a white person with South African roots should probably be included in the definition, and that, technically, everyone in the whole world has African roots. Black is a fine catchall, I suppose, but it just seems so damn inaccurate. (I've never seen a truly black person.) And what about "nigga"? Who can say it, and in reference to whom?

A sense of identity is an important part of life. It's the reason gangs, fraternities and political parties are popular, and, among other things, it's something slavery stole from generations of black Americans. Thanks to detailed records and surnames taken from ancient towns, many white Americans can trace their roots back to villages in Ireland, or find and visit long-lost second cousins in Sicily—their lineages are often strong and well-defined.


But for most black Americans, whose undocumented ancestors were ripped from spots throughout the African continent, tracing their origins isn't so easy. With no records to go by, it's nearly impossible to tell from what part of Africa one originates without the help of expensive DNA specialists, who can then offer you what basically amounts to a ballpark estimation. So it's no wonder so many blacks have tried (and failed) to create an all-encompassing nomenclature for an entire people, the thought process being, "If we can't be Liberian American or Nigerian American, how about just black, right?"

But as I said before, the long list of names blacks have given themselves is full of half-truths and falsehoods, and constantly updating it is silly and distracting from truly important issues. That’s why I propose we settle this once and for all, with a term for blacks that is traditional, well-known and more accurate than any of its counterparts: colored.

Yes, it's difficult to swallow at first. "Colored" is perhaps even more antiquated and controversial than Negro, and now, anyone saying it is likely aged and out of touch at best, racist at worst. But here, think of Socrates—just because something's old and not roundly liked doesn't make it bad.

To begin with, the most famous black organization in the world has used the word "colored" proudly in its name since its inception. "Negro" and "Afro-American" have for the most part entered and exited the lexicon, but "COLORED" remains on the NAACP's official seal, its seven curvy letters standing in all caps like some buff, unbeaten cadre of soldiers.

Next consider that, like it or not, there still exist black Americans who call themselves "colored." Like the old folks the Census Bureau was accommodating with “Negro,” my grandmother, who was 88 at the time, leaned over to me at my high school graduation in 2000 and noted, "Not a lot of colored kids at this school, huh?" Was my grandmother a self-loathing racist? Was she ignorant? Or was she just using a word that accurately described the color of her skin and mine?

Which brings me to my last and certainly most important point: People of color in America are just that—colored—and these days, it’s the only descriptor left that makes any sense to use. In 2004, a white South African immigrant was suspended from his Nebraska high school for entering a contest reserved for "African Americans." And last year, a white American citizen from Mozambique said he was harassed and then suspended from his medical school in New Jersey for defining himself as an "African American" during a diversity exercise. With the world's borders constantly becoming more permeable, what constitutes an African American is simultaneously becoming more nebulous.

Furthermore, what's considered "black" has always been a bit fishy. Barack Obama, Don Cheadle, Alicia Keys and Alek Wek dance up and down the color spectrum, and yet, as it stands now, they all fall under the umbrella term "black," a word that doesn't really describe any of their skin tones.

If we’re speaking truthfully, I'm brown, but for whatever reason, that descriptor was given to Latinos. I don't begrudge anyone that decision, but I find it difficult to agree to being called black, because I’m not. I'm also not sure I have any more right to the term "African American" than that white med student from Mozambique. What I do know is that my skin is not white, it's colored, just like Michelle Obama's and Quincy Jones' and Tavis Smiley's and Sidney Poitier's and, perhaps, yours.

The diversity within the community of color in the United States is truly remarkable, and it deserves a description that acknowledges that variance while also highlighting the group's unity. Consider it our E Pluribus Unum, and say it loud: I'm colored and I'm proud.

Cord Jefferson is a regular contributor to The Root.