11/2017 NAMING, SHAMING AND BLAMING

Recently,   a brief but intense controversy flared in Halifax, Nova Scotia, over the use of an "n-word" by a city councillor named Matt Whitman. No, it   wasn't the six-letter word that starts with an "n" and ends ends with  an  "r" and is the atomic bomb of racial epithets. Instead, it was a   five-letter word that starts with an "n" and ends with an "o" and was   once the preferred reference-term for black people.

The   word in question is "Negro." It was mentioned within the context of a   debate between two councillors over the possible racial connotations of   another word:"marijuana." The question was whether that word is  racially  offensive to Mexicans. In an interview about the matter, Coun.  Whitman  argued against that notion, because "Mexicans are not a race,  unlike  "Negroes." 

Immediately,  the councillor  was with criticism on on social media and elsewhere for  using a term  the critics deemed offensive to black people. Soon after,  Whitman  issued the now-standard apology  to anyone he may have offended.  His  reasons for using the word "Negroes" remain unknown.

Regardless   of those reasons, there was -- and is -- no need for Whitman to   apologize. There was -- and is -- no reason for the critics to have   taken offense to his utterance of the five-letter "n-word." Unlike the   six-letter "n-word," "Negro" is a descriptive term only, not a   pejorative one.

In  the past, the word "Negro"  was the conventional nomenclature for people  of African descent,  whether or not they actually live in Africa. Most  black people embraced  the term. Obviously, it was preferable to that  six-letter alternative.

That's   not to say that "Negro" was free from controversy. During the 1920s  and  '30s, huge debates raged both within and outside the black  community  over whether the "n" in "Negro" should be capitalized, or  remain  lower-case, as was common practice at that time. That  distinction may  seem trivial now, but back then the capital "N" was  thought to be an  indication of respect. Ultimately, the capital "N" won  out.

The  next controversy over the five-letter  "N-word" occurred half-a-century  ago, during the turbulent 1960s. It  was a generational conflict: younger  people at that time wanted to drop  the word "Negro" and replace it with  "black." Having battled so hard  to get that doggone "n" capitalized,  the parents of the 60s youth  resented their offsprings' rejection of  that hard-fought victory.  Ironically, this was a battle of linguistics  more than anything else,  because "negro" happens to be the Spanish and  Portuguese word for ...  black! So it was a matter of whether one  preferred to be called "black"  in English or Spanish. Yet feelings ran  so deep that some parents and  children stopped speaking to each other  over what they wanted their  race  to be called.

By  the 1970s, "black" became  predominant, and "Negro" faded into the  background. A dictionary of  self-referential terms followed, ranging  from "African-American or  Canadian" to "people of color." Only a few  black people born after the  Second World War continue to refer to  themselves as "Negroes."

Even   so, there is nothing wrong with that word. To this day, an   American-based organization called the United Negro College Fund   continues to use the five-letter "n-word" as part of its official name.   If the UNCF believed the word "Negro" to be detrimental, it would have   changed that name a long time ago.

The word "Negro" may be outdated and outmoded m this day and age. But it is not outrageous.

For sure, it's not worth fighting over.