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Is black offensive when used to refer to race or skin colour? If so, should we then not use white as well?

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See "euphemism treadmill". –  ShreevatsaR Dec 20 '10 at 15:50
    
It seems to me it would be offensive if you used it in a sentence such as "He's a black." I think it would be less offensive if you said "He's black." –  J. Walker Aug 3 '12 at 17:46

8 Answers 8

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Both white and black are widely considered to be inoffensive, and you hear them used over a wide range of contexts. Obviously, anyone can use any word in an offensive manner, and black is not exempt. Note that the word can also be written as Black.

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Can, but never is. Somehow that variant seems more offensive to me, perhaps because it is an explicit abstract categorization, whereas "black" is at least nominally just an adjective describing appearance. –  Ryan Reich Sep 2 '11 at 18:16

I think black is less offensive than African-American, considering not all black people are from Africa and there are white people from Africa as well. I'm unsure, though. I can see it being offensive referring to someone as "that black guy," as if that is his only distinguishing characteristic.

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I think African-American is one of the most offensive terms (and it highlights the insular thinking of some Americans), not because there might be white Africans, but because there are plenty of black people who aren't either African or American. On an international site, why would African-American be offered as an alternative to black? –  CJM Dec 20 '10 at 17:40
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@kitukwfyer Unless you know for a fact that the OP lives in America, that's a very silly piece of advice. –  wyatt Dec 20 '10 at 20:42
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@kitukwfyer - It's the politically correct option ONLY in the US. Black or even coloured are perfectly acceptable across the entire English-speaking world, as should be recommended IMHO. –  CJM Dec 21 '10 at 9:20
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@CJM - In current US usage, "colored" is almost entirely objectionable. –  The Raven May 22 '11 at 13:19
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@CJM: Probably don't go around saying "coloured" in the UK or the US unless you're at a far-right event, or looking to get punched. –  Marcin May 22 '11 at 13:24

I don't think there is one answer that every group would universally agree with as their preferred term. Some people prefer "African-American", some prefer "person of color", and some prefer "black". I don't think most people would become overtly offended by everyday use of any of these terms, but some might consider one or more to be a pet peeve when they hear it.

Here is the history (via OED) of "African-American" and its rise in use:

Although both African and African-American were widely used in the United States in the 19th century, the adoption of African-American as a preferred term among black Americans dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s (particularly after an April 1972 conference at which Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, proposed its use). The term gained widespread acceptance following its endorsement by the Reverend Jesse Jackson (b. 1941) during his presidential nomination campaign in 1988.

I think that non-American black people find this term ignorant at best when applied to them. Also, sometimes immigrants who have east African ancestry don't feel that this term applies to them. And other people of color just find it awkward, or simply have no problem with "black".

That said, even if you fall into the camp where you feel that "black" is an offensive term, it doesn't mean that the same must be true of "white". Each word has a long history, and different associations get embedded in different words, such that superficially or logically corresponding words like "white person" and "black person" don't necessarily correspond in their connotations.

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Personally, I try to avoid "African-American", because it assumes facts not in evidence. –  Marthaª Dec 20 '10 at 17:59
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Personally I detest "African-American" (the term, not the people thus described). Just as I wouldn't want to be called "European-American" (if I were a US citizen, which I'm not). –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 20 '10 at 21:13
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@jae: Instead, when we fill out census forms and the like, we are referred to as Caucasian, because of course all white people came from Caucasus :/ –  Kosmonaut Dec 20 '10 at 21:27
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And of course African-American and person-of-color are AE only. In BE black is perfectly OK and the main black-on-black term is Black-Briton –  mgb Apr 29 '11 at 13:36
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And who could forget the US newscaster who introduced Nelson Mandela as an "African-American"? –  The Raven May 22 '11 at 13:18

Be careful when using the word 'black' in insults. Calling someone a 'bastard' is mildly offensive; calling someone a 'black bastard' is highly offensive and racist.

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hehe, good to know :) as person who has never met a black person(they are not common here, I saw them, but never talk to them) I find a lot of "black pride" to be funny. –  IAdapter Jan 6 '11 at 12:15
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@010: in judging/understanding black pride, black nationalism, and related phenomena like political correctness, it’s important to also look at the racism in the society around/before it, that it was a reaction against. In that context, it suddenly starts to make a whoooole lot more sense. –  PLL Jan 12 '11 at 16:05

If I may quote George Carlin again:

First of all, I say "black." I say "black" because most people prefer "black." I don't say "people of color." People of color sounds like something you see when you're on mushrooms. Besides, the use of people of color is dishonest. It means precisely the same as colored people. If you're not willing to say "colored people," you shouldn't be saying "people of color."

Besides, the whole idea of color is bullshit anyway. What should we call white people? "People of no color"? Isn't pink a color? In fact, white people are not really white at all, they're different shades of pink, olive, and beige. In other words, they're colored. And black people are rarely black. I see mostly different shades of brown and tan. In fact, some light-skinned black people are lighter than the darkest white people. Look how dark the people in India are. They're dark brown, but they're considered white people. What's going on here? May I see the color chart? "People of color" is an awkward, bullshit, liberal-guilt phrase that obscures meaning rather than enhancing it. Shall we call fat people, "people of size"?

...

I also don't say "African-American." I find it completely illogical, and furthermore it's confusing. Which part of Africa are we talking about? What about Egypt? Egypt is in Africa. Egyptians aren't black. They're like the people in India, they're dark brown white people. But they're Africans. So why wouldn't an Egyptian who becomes a U.S. citizen be an African-American?

The same thing goes for the Republic of South Africa. Suppose a white racist from South Africa becomes an American citizen? Well, first of all he'd find plenty of company, but couldn't he also be called an African-American? It seems to me that a racist white South African guy could come here and call himself African-American just to piss off black people. And, by the way, what about a black person born in South Africa who moves here and becomes a citizen? What is he? An African-South African-American? Or a South African-African-American?

All right, back to this hemisphere. How about a black woman who is a citizen of Jamaica? According to P.C. doctrine, she's an African-American, right? But if she becomes a U.S. citizen, she's Jamaican-American. And yet if one of these language crusaders saw her on the street, he'd think she was an African-American. ... It's just so much liberal bullshit. Labels divide people. We need fewer labels, not more.

(emphasis mine)

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+1 Good, informative answer! –  Jimi Oke Dec 22 '10 at 5:13
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Automatic +1 for quoting George Carlin. He is sorely missed. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '11 at 18:38
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"Look how dark the people in India are. They're dark brown" not strictly accurate. Some people are, while many North Indians are fair, blue and green eyed, and can be red haired. What is it about Americans that make them assume they know everything? –  5arx Sep 2 '11 at 10:37
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@5arx, maybe you shouldn't judge a nation of 350 million people based on a sentence in a comedy routine. –  Robert S. Sep 2 '11 at 14:15
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@5arx, George Carlin was a stand-up comedian, and this quotation is from a book he wrote called Brain Droppings, which you will find in the humor section of a bookstore. –  nohat Sep 2 '11 at 15:40

I think we really ought to leave that up to the people we're assigning the label to to judge. A 2007 Gallup poll among, uhm... African/Black Americans suggests that when asked 'which term they prefer', most (61%) don't care either way, 25% prefer 'African American' and 13% 'black'. That's a 6 point increase from 1991 for 'African American' and a similar decrease for 'black'.

The term 'African American' appears to have won acceptance in the 80ies after Jesse Jackson began to use it, rather than the other proposal 'Afro American'.

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@Kosmonaut, I missed the fact that you already mentioned the Jesse Jackson reference when skimming over previous answers. –  Joost Schuur Dec 22 '10 at 6:05
    
Interestingly, Afro-Caribbean won out over African-Caribbean here in Britain. –  Richard Gadsden May 21 '12 at 10:15
    
Thank you for adding data about the preferences of the people being discussed. –  espertus Jun 10 at 22:52

I'd use "black" to refer generally to people of sub-Saharan African descent. "African-American" is a term that can confuse people; it's usual meaning is "descendent of pre-1865 black slaves in the USA", or a black person of other descent acculturated amongst slave-descendants. It doesn't mean "any person of African descent who is an American citizen" (for example, Charlize Theron is not an African-American). Recent black immigrants from Africa don't fit particularly comfortably into the "African-American" category, as they don't carry the culture.

It's a subset of black people. Generally, African-Americans prefer to be referred to as such, rather than as black people (in the same way as I'd prefer to be referred to as "British" rather than "European").

Using black as a noun ("that man is a black") rather than an adjective ("that man is black") is often seen as less acceptable - one is a description, the other implies that it's a primary characteristic.

Black people in non-American countries are not often called *African-British or *African-French or whatever (we might get what you mean, but that's not a term anyone would use). "Black British" has the nice benefit of alliteration that African-American has, and seems to be the preferred term. As about half of the black people in Britain are immigrants (or descendents of immigrants) from the Caribbean and about half are (more recent) immigrants (or their descendents) directly from Africa, geographical terms are generally seen as more specific - "African-British" might suggest "black, but not Afro-Caribbean", though, again, it's not used much because of the confusion.

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+1 for being the only answerer that knows the meaning of "African-American." –  Robert S. Sep 2 '11 at 14:16
    
+1 for the distinction between 'a black' and 'black' - referring to people as 'blacks' is definitely somewhat offensive IMO because, as you say, it makes skin colour the primary characteristic. –  tinyd Sep 2 '11 at 15:12
    
@tinyd: I agree. As a white American male, I have to say that I cannot recall hearing a black nor someone referring to people as blacks in a context that wasn't flat out racist in intent. –  horatio Sep 2 '11 at 15:44
    
@horatio The same thing is operative in calling someone a gay instead of gay. It’s somethingist, for some unpleasant value of something. It devalues the person. –  tchrist May 19 '12 at 23:23
    
@horatio I have, but it was my Granddad talking about the soldiers that served under his command in WWII. –  Richard Gadsden May 21 '12 at 10:22

Generally, I think its best just not to refer to it at all. Its a minefield, and frankly it shouldn't even be relevant information in almost all cases.

Sometimes (eg: in stories about racial issues) it is unavoidable. But if the person's ethnicity or melanin content isn't germane to the discussion, there's really no good reason to bring it up.

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protected by Will Hunting Mar 27 '12 at 10:04

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