Is It Racist to Call Someone Black?


Black woman with long curly hair and eyeglasses sitting in a chair with her chin resting on the palm of her hand.

The term race has often referred to where someone is from. Today’s world includes many diverse ethnicities that are born and raised together, and the meanings and understandings of race have morphed and evolved. This does not mean origin and ancestry are not important. Some may argue that lineage is more meaningful than ever in today’s era because of the unique and beautiful differences that each individual holds.

The term black may be offensive to some because it labels a person by their skin color, instead of recognizing their nationality. When you call someone black, you don’t always recognize that they are someone who comes from a unique cultural background. However, it is not always considered racist to call someone black.

Respect is the most important thing to remember when discussing race and racial terminology. It is crucial to approach racial conversations with an open mind and a willingness to learn about cultures other than your own. Read on to learn about the use of the word black, politically correct terms you can use for African Americans, racist terms you should never use, and more.

A woman talking to another woman who is sitting across the table. Text across the image says, "Respect is the most important thing to remember when discussing race and racial terminology."

Politically Correct Terms for African Americans

Most of us aren’t living through life based on society’s definition of what’s “politically” correct. It’s more important to treat people as fellow human beings. And as it relates to interacting with people and how to refer to them, we should remember that different individuals are going to prefer different terminology. It is unlikely that an entire nationality of people will want to be referred to by the same title. However, there are some things that no one appreciates being called, so it is important to look at what is appropriate and how to be respectful.

A term that is understood as being racially sensitive one day can change into being offensive in the future as people and meanings evolve. Also, we should remember that terms are often imposed upon groups of people by other groups of people, and not self-imposed terms.  As a result, it’s important to be aware of changing times and the accepted terminology so we don’t accidentally offend others by simply being uneducated about how terms have progressed and changed. (Source: Cumbria)

We all can do our best to educate ourselves and be aware of what is offensive and what is acceptable. This way, each race can be celebrated and treated with the respect it deserves. And, by taking time to have honest conversations with people from different ethnic backgrounds, we can begin to appreciate each other.

Disagreements About Politically Correct Terms for African Americans

Terms that are supposed to be politically correct are not without controversy.  For example, the terms Black and African American are widely considered politically correct today, but they are not embraced by everyone.

  • Black –Some individuals prefer that we not use this term because it is merely a reference to skin color, without true consideration for ethnicity or culture.  On the other hand, some individuals feel the term is appropriate when talking about racism.  This is because racist policies, actions and views tend to be based solely on skin color, and not on whether an individual with black skin has origins from Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc.  And not on whether the individual with black skin is from America, Canada, Europe, etc.
  • African American – This term has been embraced politically because both the individual’s race and culture are being recognized. However, some feel this term is unnecessarily divisive because other ethnicities in America are not referred to with a hyphenated term.  For example, Americans with white skin are often referred to as just Americans, not Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, etc.

Although the terms Black and African American have shortcomings, they are currently the most acceptable terms to use.

Politically Incorrect Terms for African Americans

In contrast, there are several racial terms that are universally considered offensive when used towards African Americans.   Throughout American history, Black people were discriminated against, denied civil rights, and violently attacked and killed because of their race or skin color.  Racism and inconsideration for oppressed populations in society have been constant struggles. Racial slurs are a part of this discriminatory history. (Source: Smithsonian

What are racial slurs? 

Racial slurs are demeaning and hurtful labels that are put on a group of individuals for no reason other than to offend and insult.  Thus, racial slurs are obviously deemed politically incorrect. 

What is an offensive racial term?

Some offensive labels may fall into a grey area as to whether it’s a racial slur meant to offend and insult, or just an offensive term used with no bad intent, or unintentionally insulting.  Generally, a term is offensive if it is used in a way that refers to one group as “less than” or not equal to another group.  Or, if it is used in a way that categorizes a group of people as “other” in contexts where they should be included and deemed the same as the main group being referenced.

Some offensive terms were used in American society for decades and were written into American laws, which helped shape the state of race relations in America today. As Blacks gained civil rights and pushed for racial equality, society re-categorized these terms as hateful and discriminatory. 

Here’s a list of terms that should never be used towards African Americans:

  • N-word
  • Colored
  • Them/Those people
  • Foreigner
  • Exotic

And here’s some terms that have been losing acceptance and could be considered offensive depending on context and circumstances:

  • Urban
  • Minority
  • People of Color

When discussing race and racial issues, people will sometimes hesitate to utter any title or term for fear of offending someone. This is an understandable given the complexities around race in America.  The key is respect.  Simply treating everyone with respect will help lower fear and heighten humanity.  Ask questions, communicate your concerns, and respect others no matter what nationality, race, or ethnicity they are.

A man and woman talking and sitting in chairs facing each other. The man appears to be upset. Text across the image says, "We all should do our best to educate ourselves and be aware of what is offensive and what is acceptable."

How to avoid using offensive terminology

When a group of people or a section of society are oppressed for so many years, it is very difficult to break the toxic mold because children are taught the same generational prejudice again and again.  And those children grow up to be adults.  Being aware of current and acceptable terminology is one way you can do your part in speaking to African Americans positively and respectfully.

Here’s what you can do to break that cycle:

  1. Educate yourself by doing your own research.  There are numerous podcasts, blogs, and articles at your fingertips on the internet.  For instance, a popular podcast called, Yo, Is This Racist? explores specific examples of potentially racist statements submitted by their listeners, and actions that occur in pop culture.  It’s both educational and entertaining in how it takes this serious topic and addresses it in a conversational, non-demonizing way.
  2. Speak to trusted friends or colleagues who can help guide your education. If you don’t have any black people in your circle, consider joining a community group or online forum.  The forum does not have to be focused on race, ethnicity, or culture.  Any group where the group of participants are diverse will suffice.  It could be a cooking group or a group for specific hobbies such as sewing, biking, or a book club at your local library. 
  3. Have an open mind and be willing to acknowledge other perspectives. Even if you don’t think a term is offensive or don’t understand how it could be offensive, be mindful that it could actually be offensive to a specific individual or group of people.  Like they say, until you have walked in someone else’s shoes, you have no idea.  Understand that simple words can be hurtful to an individual, even if your intentions were well-meaning.
  4. Think before you speak!  Let’s be honest with ourselves and recognize that sometimes it’s obvious when a term is offensive, and we should avoid using it.  Once we know better, we should do better.

There is still a daily battle that everyone must join, and that is to respect and actively fight for the equality of all. Many people consider racial justice and equality to be a sensitive topic.  These topics can be difficult to speak candidly about when you do not have a strong understanding of what is offensive because your delivery may be misconstrued.  But race and racial justice shouldn’t be taboo at all.  Try discussing these topics with someone you have prior rapport and trust with, join groups in your community, and educate yourself through helpful podcasts, blogs, and articles.

Final Thoughts

Treating African Americans with respect and dignity and asking individuals the term they prefer to be called is the best course of action before assuming that you know what is politically correct.

Celebrating and embracing culture, race, and nationality are all important qualities of respecting individuals and not making assumptions about race simply based on skin color.

When in doubt, ask someone what they prefer to be called before assuming that you know the best term to use. The individual on the receiving end will likely appreciate being asked because it shows consideration and respect to not only the person’s race but also their unique individuality. (Source: NY Times)

Author

  • Writing allows me to provide useful information in a way that is easy to grasp. I hope people are able to use my articles as a springboard for learning, advocating and advancing the causes they believe in.

Shenetta Webster

Writing allows me to provide useful information in a way that is easy to grasp. I hope people are able to use my articles as a springboard for learning, advocating and advancing the causes they believe in.

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