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.