How to refer to various ethnic/racial groups? This is my deep-dive on the many labels we use.
At a Glance
I was raised as a Negro child in a Negro family in a Negro community in the segregated South. We capitalized Negro. That fight had been won in the 1920s.1
People in my community were very proud to say we were Negroes and not coloreds. Colored is what White people called us when they wanted to diminish us. I can still hear White clerks in downtown shops referring to “that colored gal.” I grew to detest that term.
The switch from colored to Negro began well before I was born. Legendary Black leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois led the switch in the 1920s, although they initially had opposition.2 People of the times objected to the term Negro because it seemingly disconnected us as a people from our African roots, yet DuBois and others maintained that it was more substantive than either African or colored.
The word Negro was also seen as problematic. White segregationists with a Southern drawl would say it so it sounded dangerously close to the N-word. I still remember hearing older White men refer to “that Nigra,” to avoid using the proper pronunciation.
Of course in the 1950s and most of the 1960s, we were definitely not black. To call someone black was to insult them. “Yo mamma so black, she stepped out the car and the oil light came on.” Black described those people who lived in Africa who made themselves subservient to Tarzan.
While the African Blacks on television were widely portrayed as ignorant and “uncouth,” I heard a different story at home. My mother said that her once enslaved grandfather boasted he was a member of an African tribe. My father told me that Africans had ruled kingdoms. Reconciling the degrading images on television with my parents’ portrayal of royalty was challenging as a child. I had to grow up and learn our history before it all made sense.
In 1960, four Black teenagers staged the sit-in at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina that launched the civil rights protest movement. Most of them self-identified as Negro.
A few short years later, near the end of the movement in the mid-1960s, Malcolm X had risen to prominence. He and other Black leaders (Mohammed Ali, Stokely Carmichael) proclaimed that we were black. James Brown sang, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” Black and proud! We echoed those words: Black and proud and beautiful.
Twenty years later, a new name evolved. To my dismay, in December 1988, the National Urban Coalition with Rev. Jesse Jackson as the spokesperson declared that we were no longer black, we were African Americans.
Just as we were called 'colored,' but were not that, and then 'Negro,' but were not that, to be called 'black' is just as baseless. Just as you have Chinese Americans who have a sense of roots in China, or Europeans, as it were, every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some historical culture base.... There are Armenian Americans and Jewish Americans and Arab Americans and Italian Americans. And with a degree of accepted and reasonable pride, they connect their heritage to their mother country and where they are now…. To be called African American has cultural integrity.2
I used the phrase African American for a few years and then slowly the trend swung back to the choice of either Black or African American or both (Black African American). I was delighted and still am.
African is not an ethnicity. Black here is. It’s all made up in the end, no? So you choose what you want. I choose Black.— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) July 1, 2020
About a decade or so ago, I asked a graduate class their preferred ethnic or racial identity. We were astonished at what happened next.
A Black student gave a fervent explanation of why she preferred African American. She said, “Whites are identified by their country. They are Irish American or Italian American. They have roots. We need to have roots too.”
A third-generation student whose people came from Mexico said she preferred Mexican, not Mexican American.
A second-generation Brazilian student said she preferred Brazilian American. She was definitely opposed to being referred to as Hispanic American because Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, not by the Spanish. She was dismayed that people kept lumping her in with Hispanics. She understood Spanish, she explained, but her parents spoke Portuguese. If she was going to be called anything other than Brazilian American, she would accept Latina.
A student who as a teenager made a dangerous journey to this country from Vietnam and subsequently became naturalized said he preferred to be identified as American, emphatically not Asian American. Just American.
What about other groups? Some interesting generational differences emerged.
In the 1980s, my female graduate students resented being referred to as “girl” as insulting and infuriating. By 2010, when I asked women students how they felt about the term “girl,” they stared at me blankly. “We refer to each other as girls all the time. What’s the problem?”
Over a generation, attitudes had changed. I suspect that this change reflects maturity of the feminist movement. Prior to the feminist movement, it was quite common for male employers to refer to mature women as their “girls.” “My girl will call your girl and set it up for us.”
By 2010 those days had passed. The students in my class had a stronger sense of their status in the world as professional women.
As must be evident, there are no clear-cut rules for how to refer to members of racial and ethnic groups. The self-identifications of other groups change over time as well.
By that day in 2010 when the student declared that she preferred African American, Jesse Jackson had already made the announcement, and the term African American was gaining currency.3Even then, questions remained about how we as Blacks would be identified in White media as distinct from how we identified ourselves.
Back up a few years. By 2005, I was following the lead of most Black media in capitalizing Black. Only the White media continued to keep it lower case.
When Jean Ramsey and I submitted the manuscript for Reframing Change to our publisher, the edited copy came back with all references to Black and White changed to lower case. My knee-jerk reaction was to feel dissed. No, you cannot define me, I thought.
We responded that only the White media, not the Black media, used lower case. We offered and they agreed that we would provide this rationale in the preface of the book:
We have capitalized the terms “Black” and “White” throughout the manuscript whenever these refer to race. Most people who identify themselves as “Black” are not black in hue nor do most Whites have a white hue. Hence the terms Black and White as we use them are proper nouns referring to ethnicity and not adjectives referring to a particular color or hue.4
A parallel distinction exists within the Deaf community. The words deaf or Deaf are used depending upon whether the reference is to an audiological trait (deaf) or a cultural identity (Deaf). In this book, we use the term “deaf” as an auditory trait and hence do not capitalize the term when it is used.
Throughout this time, the White media had continued to refer to blacks, not Blacks, according to their style guides.
Last month, this all changed. I strongly suspect that this is part of the sea change that is now occurring as a result of millions of people watching George Floyd’s calloused murder on television. Organizations everywhere are examining their practices for hidden bias.
On June 19, 2020. The AP style guide announced they would capitalize Black and Indigenous:
AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.
We also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.
These changes align with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American. Our discussions on style and language consider many points, including the need to be inclusive and respectful in our storytelling and the evolution of language. We believe this change serves those ends.
As a global news organization, we are continuing to discuss within the U.S. and internationally whether to capitalize the term white.
Newspapers fell in line rapidly. The New York Times, Washington Post, and others have announced they will capitalize Black when referring to us as an ethnic group.
This is big. The White media is saying that we as Black people have the right to define ourselves. As Nicole Hannah-Jones (Ida Bae Wells), the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spearheaded the New York Times’ 1619 Project declared, “this is liberating to see.”
If you only knew how my generation of Black journalists had this capitalization forced out of us. This is liberating to see.— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) June 30, 2020
Notably, the AP has decided to delay the decision whether to capitalize White. Some people find the term uncomfortably close to endorsing White supremacy. Others declare that Whites do not identify themselves as a race as do Blacks. The Seattle Times is one of the newspapers.
In rebuttal, Kwame Anthony Appiah noted in The Atlantic:
It’s true that white people have the luxury of not thinking of themselves as white when they’re in all-white settings; the less that’s the norm, the less they can think of race as something that only other people have—the way talk of “ethnic” food suggests that ethnicity is a property only “ethnics” have…. By treating Black as a name and white as a fact, the style guide would exempt white people from history—a rather troubling history at that.
I agree. Recall some of my White students were confused when I asked them about their racial/ethnic identity. Not recognizing themselves as having a race allows race to be a property of others and whiteness to be the default. Appiah continues:
The point of the capital letter isn’t to elevate; it’s to situate… Racial identities were not discovered but created… and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.
And what of the argument that White supremacists may gain reinforcement if we capitalize the w in white? The exact opposite might occur, says Appiah.
If capitalizing white becomes the standard among anti-racists, “the supremacists’ gesture would no longer be a provocative defiance of the norm and would lose all force.
In a similar way, the power of the insult to be called Black lost its force when we defined ourselves as Black and Proud and Beautiful.
I imagine that some of you feel that this whole conversation is absurd since there is no genetic difference among the races. (Note, though, that every public health scientist will tell you there is a biological or epigenetic difference – think about generational trauma – but that’s possibly a future blog.)
So let me explain why this is so vital to our sense of identity. Race was made up to support the economic prosperity of the South – and the North. Africans arrived in this country before slavery even existed and lived as free people. Then the slave trade came, providing a handy source of free labor. How could God-fearing Christians support such exploitation of human beings like themselves? They couldn’t. Much easier to declare the Africans inferior and brand them based on their skin color and other physical features. Modern day race and racism was born.
This history and genetic facts do not obscure the meaningfulness of the experience. When I talk about race in this blog post, then, I’m talking about an experiential phenomenon, not a genetic reality.
From the onset of slavery in this country, we as Blacks have sought to achieve our rights and recognition as free and equal citizens. We have had to fight for our rightful place; our name needs to reflect our perceptions of our identity and our right to be treated with respect.
Of course, there are those who would argue this change is meaningless until the everyday lives of Black people change.
This is a chicken-egg question. Does our self-identity influence our capacity to create change, or does the fact of change lead to a redefinition of ourselves? I believe the relationship is interactive. Briefly, language constructs social reality. My conception of myself as a Negro was far different from how I think of myself as a Black person or an African American, living in a country where the legacy of slavery and segregation persist.
The decision to capitalize is another step forward. Capital B connotes a level of respect that small b does not.
Names matter. Labels matter.
First, here’s what not to do. About a decade or so ago, I was talking with a colleague, let’s call her Beth, about a woman we both knew. Somehow the second woman’s sexual orientation came up. Beth said, “I’m not going to refer to her as a lesbian. I don’t like that term. I prefer to say gay.”
I was stunned. Beth was heterosexual. I remember thinking to myself, “Who gave you the right to decide what to call someone in another group?”
So here’s how to handle the situation: If you’re confused about a person’s identity and know them well enough to inquire, ask them. There is no uniform right answer. The right answer is whatever the person wants to be called.
Terms change from decade to decade and individuals have their own views of how they want to be perceived. Ask the person their preference, then use that term. Respectfully.
We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.
It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.
 Smitherman, G. (1991). "What Is Africa to Me, Language, Ideology, and African-American." American Speech, 66(2): 115-132.
 Smith, T. W. (1992). From "Colored" to "Negro" to "Black" to "African American". Public Opinion Quarterly, 56(4), 496-514.
 At the Million Man March in 1995, Rev. Jackson made frequent references to "black men," "black women," and "black voters." As reported in the news, he never used the term "African-Americans." Heilemann, J. (1995). Black is Back. The New Yorker: 33.
 Latting, J. K. and V. J. Ramsey (2009). Reframing change: How to deal with workplace dynamics, influence others, and bring people together to initiate positive change. Westport CT, Praeger Publishers, p. 11
 The Decision to Capitalize Black
 Nikole Hannah-Jones Made Black History With The 1619 Project, And She’s Not Done Yet.
 Appiah, K. A. (2020). The case for capitalizing the B in Black. The Atlantic.