(This post is me becoming curious about the variety of different opinions on racial labels, spending far too many hours researching the topic, and writing up what I find.)
One thing that I find interesting is that basically every minority ethnic and racial group in the United States has constantly dealt with terminological disputes about their proper group name.
One possible explanation for this constant turn-over was given by disability rights activist Evan Kemp, who wrote:
As long as a group is ostracized or otherwise demeaned, whatever name is used to designate that group will eventually take on a demeaning flavor and have to be replaced. The designation will keep changing every generation or so until the group is integrated into society. Whatever name is in vogue at the point of social acceptance will be the lasting one.
If this is the right explanation, then maybe we’d be able to measure the relative degrees of discrimination faced by different groups on the basis of their ‘terminological velocity’ – how quick a turnover the name for their group has.
Regardless, looking into these issues revealed a bunch of interesting history and weird trivia. So here goes!
Native American vs American Indian
A 1995 Census Bureau survey of American Indians found that 49% preferred the term ‘American Indian’ and 37% preferred ‘Native American’. I couldn’t find any more recent polls on this question.
This may seem unusual if you don’t know much about American Indian culture and history. It’s a bit confusing to me; as somebody with a parent born in India, I’m pretty sure that I’m an American Indian.
Why is a term that derives from the geographical error of early European colonists the most favored of all available terms? And why not ‘Native American’? From an outside perspective, ‘Native American’ feels like a respectful term, one that pays homage to the history of American Indians as the original residents of the Americas.
It turns out the answer to these questions comes from a quick look at the history of these terms, which is super fascinating.
‘Native American’ was a term originally used by WASPs in the 1850s to differentiate themselves from Catholic Irish and German immigrants. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, whose supporters were known for violent riots in Catholic neighborhoods, burning down churches, and tarring and feathering of Catholic priests, was originally known as the Native American Party.
The term fell out of use for a century upon the rise of the anti-slavery movement and subsequent collapse of the Know-Nothings. This time gap probably indicates that the early usage of the term has little current relevance to associations with the term, but I included it anyway. I find it darkly amusing to imagine white anti-Catholic nativists running around calling themselves Native Americans.
The term ‘Native American’ was revived in the civil rights era by anthropologists eager for historical accuracy and disassociation from the negative stereotypes associated with ‘Indian’. This was adopted widely by government agencies, and apparently in doing so picked up a negative connotation.
Prominent Lakota activist Russell Means described the term as “a generic government term used to describe all the indigenous prisoners of the United States.” Some American Indians emphasize a sense of lack of ownership over the term, and feel that it was a “colonial term” given to them by outsiders.
‘American Indian’ is apparently more widely favored. Widespread acceptance of this term dates back to 1968 and the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM). At a UN conference in 1977, AIM’s International Indian Treaty Council urged collective identification of American Indians with the term.
One argument made for the term is that while the names of other races in America have ‘American’ as their second word (e.g. ‘Asian American’, ‘Arab American’), ‘American Indian’ would have American as its first word, giving American Indians a special distinction. I’m serious, this was a real argument.
‘American Indian’ is etymologically close to ‘Indian’, which dates back to early European colonists that systematically drove American Indian populations out of their homes. Some note derogatory stereotypes from old Western movies associated with ‘cowboys and Indians’, and feel that the association carries over to ‘American Indian’.
Other American Indians say that they would prefer to be identified by their specific tribal nation, feeling that terms like ‘Native American’ and ‘Indian American’ lump all tribes together and ignore important differences in heritage. The problem with this is that there are 562 federally recognized distinct tribes, making this cognitively unfeasible. It’s also just useful to have a term to talk about these tribes in the aggregate.
Interestingly, when I was researching this, I found a Washington Post poll in 2016 that reported that 73% of American Indians felt that the word ‘Redskin’ was not disrespectful, and 80% would not be offended if referred to as a Redskin. A 2004 poll found similar results, with 90% of American Indians saying that the name of the Washington Redskins didn’t bother them. This is significantly more than the percentage of all Americans that don’t find the name offensive, which is around 68%.
I tried to find good arguments against these poll results, and could only find some groundless conspiracy theories suggesting the polls had been infiltrated by white people claiming to be American Indians. In the absence of alternative explanations, I really don’t know what to make of this, besides that it suggests a complete disconnect between American Indian activists and the general American Indian population.
Black vs African American
The 2010 United States Census included “Black, African Am., or Negro” as one of their racial identifications. In response to many complaints and black Americans refusing to select the term, they have now switched to the shorter ‘Black or African American’.
Something that caught my eye was their explanation of this choice, which was that apparently previous research had shown that if polls didn’t allow self-identification as ‘Negro’, a significant number of older African Americans would take the time to write it in under the ‘some other race’ category.
The term ‘Negro’ became popular in the 1920s as a polite term to replace ‘Colored’, which was in turn originally a polite alternative to ‘Nigger’ in the 1900s. An actual argument made for adopting ‘Negro’ was that it was easier to pluralize than ‘Colored’, which required the addition of another word (‘Negroes’ vs ‘Colored people’). Bizarre, but okay!
In 1890, the US Census used a four-way classification: ‘Black’ for those with at least ¾ black blood, ‘mulatto’ from 3/8 to 5/8, ‘quadroon’ for ¼, and ‘octoroon’ for 1/8. Unsurprisingly, this did not catch on.
‘Negro’ was simpler, and quickly became the politically correct and respectful term, used by black leaders like Booker T Washington, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and later Martin Luther King Jr. Many black organizations replaced ‘Colored’ in their title with ‘Negro’, with the notable exception of the NAACP.
During the civil rights era, radical and militant black organizations began to attack the term, claiming that it was associated with the history of slavery and racism. ‘Black’ became a term that identified you with radical progressive blacks (think of slogans like ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is beautiful’), while ‘Negro’ was associated with the status quo and the old guard.
The last US president to use the term ‘Negro’ was Lyndon Johnson, and by 1980 there was a large majority of African Americans in favor of ‘Black’. And of course, in modern times the term ‘Negro’ is commonly perceived as a racial slur. Obama banned the term from usage in federal law in 2016.
Meanwhile ‘Black’ became the standard term employed in surveys and used by black organizations, and having gained popular acceptance, lost its radical connections.
(Quick aside: This looks to me like an instance of what’s called semantic bleaching, where a word weakens in meaning as it increases in usage. My favorite example of this is the phrase ‘God be with you’, which over the years lost its religious connotation and became… ‘goodbye’!)
This lasted until around 1990, when Jesse Jackson announced that ‘Black’ was a term disconnected from cultural heritage, and declared a switch to ‘African American’.
While some organizations changed their names and declared their support for ‘African American’, this didn’t gather the same level of universal acceptance as ‘Black’ had in the 1960s, or indeed ‘Negro’ in the 1900s. The 1995 Census found that 44% of Black Americans still preferred ‘Black’, and only 28% preferred ‘African American’. Some argued that modern African Americans have created a culture that is not tied to Africa, and indeed that there is no coherent concept of a ‘single African culture’.
One paper I read attributed Jackson’s lack of success in making ‘African American’ the universally used term to a missing confrontational intensity that existed in the Black Power movement. For instance, when Malcolm X and other radical black activists challenged the term ‘Negro’, they attacked it harshly and made its usage a social taboo.
Jackson may have lacked the political power to sufficiently mobilize Black Americans. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 61% of Black Americans didn’t care about what term they were described by, reflecting a high level of apathy towards his cause. A 2005 paper found that Black Americans were nearly equally divided between the two.
Currently there’s an uneasy shifting balance between these two terms, where both are acceptable, though sometimes one becomes more acceptable than the other. In my personal experience, I recall a several-year period where I perceived that the term “Black” was becoming increasingly politically incorrect. I later had (and currently have) a sense that this political incorrectness around the term had backed off, keeping it in public acceptance.
Hispanic vs Latino
Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries were grouped together by the US government under the umbrella term ‘Hispanic’ in the 1970s. ‘Latino’ later became popular as well, and was first included in the 2000 Census. These terms are defined as synonyms by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Polls indicate that around half of Latinos don’t like either term, and prefer to be identified with their country of origin. When forced to choose, more than twice as many prefer ‘Hispanic’ over ‘Latino’. (Interestingly, Latino friends of mine tell me that they and their Latino friends and family overwhelmingly prefer ‘Latino’ over ‘Hispanic’, which points to some sort of selection bias around me that I don’t understand.)
The federal government officially defines ‘Latino’ not as a race, but an ethnicity. Latinos apparently disagree – 56% claim that is both a race and an ethnicity and 11% that it is a race. Only 19% agree with the official definition!
Both terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are fairly unique to the United States. Terms that arose from Latino social movements like ‘Chicano’ have never won out among Latinos. This might be in part because of the lack of a strong shared identity – about 70% of Latinos think that there is not a common culture between American Latinos, and instead see a loose group composed of many individual cultures. There’s also a relevant lack of widely-known Latino activists and clear representatives of Latino people to champion these terms.
An older term designed to de-gender the term ‘Latino’ is ‘Latin@’, starting in the 1990s. This was apparently not inclusive enough, as the ‘@’ represents only ‘o’ and ‘a’ and not those that identify with neither. More recently, social justice activists have tried to encourage the adoption of the term ‘Latinx’. This term breaks with the gendered nature of the Spanish language and hardly rollss off the tongue, but has become relatively popular with LGBT activists.
Asian American vs Oriental
The term ‘Oriental’ was prohibited in the same bill in which Obama prohibited the use of the term ‘Negro’ in federal documents. There is a fairly strong consensus at this point that ‘Asian American’ is the appropriate term (though there remains some academic debate about this term).
‘Oriental’ is an old old term, dating back to the late Roman Empire. Over its history, the geographical region it referred to shifted constantly eastward (ad orientalem), from Morocco (yes, at some point it might have been proper to refer to Moroccans as Oriental!) to Egypt and the Levant to India and finally to East and Southeast Asia by the mid-1900s.
The term picked up baggage in the U.S. during the racist campaigns against Asian Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and by now is fairly universally considered a pejorative term.
It was replaced by the term ‘Asian American’, which began to enter into popular use in the 1960s. The US Census definition of ‘Asian American’ still includes Indians, which feels really really wrong to me. I tried and failed to find public opinion polls on how many people feel comfortable with the term ‘Asian’ being applied to Indians.
The terminological situation of the Roma people is uniquely terrible. They are mostly referred to by the pejorative term ‘Gypsy’, which is essentially synonymous with ‘dangerous thieving wanderer’. The term ‘gypped’, meaning cheated or swindled, also has its origins in this term. They are also commonly referred to by the term ‘Tigan’, another pejorative term that derives from the Greek word for ‘untouchable’.
In a 2013 BBC TV interview, former Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta took care to distinguish Romanians from the Roma, noting that Romanians want to distance themselves from the Roma due to the negative connotations of the similar term.
And in 2010, the Romanian government supported a constitutional amendment legally renaming the Roma to the pejorative ‘Tigan’. (This law was later rejected by the Romanian Senate) Another such amendment was proposed in 2013, this time hoping to ban the self-identification of Roma in Romania as Romanians.
Jewish people are also in an unusual terminological situation. The term ‘Israelite’ was apparently commonly used until the 1947 formation of Israel. While ‘Jew’ is the only remaining commonly used term, there are problems with it. From The American Heritage Dictionary:
It is widely recognized that the attributive use of the word Jew, in phrases such as Jew lawyer or Jew ethics, is both vulgar and highly offensive. In such contexts Jewish is the only acceptable possibility. Some people, however, have become so wary of this construction that they have extended the stigma to any use of Jew as a noun, a practice that carries risks of its own. In a sentence such as There are several Jews on the council, which is unobjectionable, the substitution of a circumlocution like Jewish people or persons of Jewish background may in itself cause offense for seeming to imply that Jew has a negative connotation when used as a noun.
All in all, it looks like a really complicated mixture of factors ends up determining how this part of the language evolves.
On the one hand there are syntactic features (like ‘American Indian’ having ‘Indian’ on the right as opposed to the standard left, or ‘Colored’ having a complicated pluralization compared to ‘Negro’).
And on the other hand there are semantic features like the ancient and automatic negative associations with words like ‘dark’ and ‘black’, or the colonial associations tied to the term ‘Indian’.
There are contemporary factors like the existence of a strong shared racial/ethnic identity, the presence of a charismatic racial/ethnic leader, and whether or not the introducer of a new term for a group is an insider or outsider to the group.
Then there are phenomena like semantic bleaching, whereby terms that enter common use have their meaning diluted and weakened, and concept creep, whereby words change their meaning over long stretches of history by altered patterns of usage.
And finally there are longer-term historical effects like the gradual inundation of language with dark undertones over decades of racism and discriminatory treatment.