6 Words you shouldn’t call a black person: Black Folk 101

I thought I’d help some of my dear virtual friends out. See, not everyone has encounters with black people believe it or not. There have been times where I’ve found myself as the first black person someone has talked to. And many times where I’ve found out I was “the black friend”… Oy.

Now we all should know ignorance isn’t bliss, not when it comes to this, and there have been times I’ve been called things that make me think Oh no s/he didn’t. Bless their heart.

So if you’ve never met a black person before, or just never known what to call one (you’d be surprised how many times I get asked this question) here’s a little education for you. Personally, I don’t like to be called any of these things by anyone, regardless of race (yes, even if you too are black.) These are things I (or my daughter) have been called that we shouldn’t have.

1. Nig**: Whether this has an “a” on the end or not, it’s not ok to call a black person this. Consider yourself warned.
2. Negro: Once again, something that doesn’t sit well with me. Don’t use this term to identify a black person. This aint the 1950s.
3. Colored: Read above.
4. Uncle Tom: *Deep breath* Just because someone doesn’t fall into a stereotypical roles media and others portray of blacks, doesn’t mean they are a “sell out.”
5. Mutt: A person of mixed race shouldn’t be compared to a mix-breed dog.
6. “My Black Friend”: You don’t know how many times I’ve heard something to the effect of “well I’m not a racist, I have a black friend…” Maybe you’re not a racist, but I wouldn’t admit you only have one black friend. No one really wants to be your token.

The happier news: If my race should be identified I prefer to be called “black.” It’s ok to call me black. I actually tend to prefer it over “African American” because if a white person from South Africa moved to the US, they wouldn’t be called African American. And if you met a Canadian black man, you shouldn’t call him African American because he isn’t African nor American.

Note: These opinions vary from black person to black person, but generally, most people don’t like being called what’s on the above list.

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  1. Bravo Jennifer! I prefer “mixed” over “biracial.” I just don’t like the word “biracial,” no reason really.

    My grandma (who is black) still calls black people “colored.” oh well.

    I prefer “black,” too. Do we call white people “Caucasian American?” No. My dad’s side of the family was brought over here in the 1600s, before MANY Europeans even settled, so if we’re going to get technical I’m more American than many ;p

  2. As a white woman who lives in the South, I hate those things you listed too! I hate listening to my students (black and/or white) use them too!! I like to tell people I have lots of friends and God just happened to give some of them darker skin than me.

    Thanks for giving us something to think about today…

  3. As someone who grew up in predominately white communities, race was something that wasn’t talked about. Sure we celebrated MLK day, learned about slavery but as far as calling someone black – I never learned if that was ok or not. And for whatever reason I get uncomfortable pointing out racial differences between myself and someone else to their face. Thanks for the primer!

  4. I’m just wondering here. Is ‘colored’ only bad in America? Because I know that in South Africa they call people who are mixed ‘colored’. And what I mean by mixed is caucasian and black, never any other races. (My English is really bad. Sorry!)

  5. Well said. Luckily, people don’t use those terms around here in NYC 🙂 I have never even heard of some of them. Anywho, this one time I was in Indiana and um this girl who came to meet me and my advisor was on the phone with her mom and she was like yea, they are both colored. My advisor and I had never heard that before, we are from NYC and Boston and we made it into a huge joke (we are Indian, like the real Indians from India type not Native American). Seriously?? DH’s family is from GA (white) and they use certain terms/ stereotypes, and it annoys me because they are well educated, doctors/ professors and to use those words? It’s part of the reason, lots of middle aged people from the North are not interested in visiting the South because of ignorant statements like these.

  6. I love this post!!! 🙂 But actually I do have a white friend from South Africa and he actually refers to himself as African-American because he says “first of all, I’m way more African than you are and I’m now officially an American citizen….so therefore, I’m actually African-American.” Which….is actually very true.
    I prefer to be called black simply because well….I’m not directly from Africa, my heritage is actually Caribbean and then I am first generation American. So it makes it easier.
    Anyway, thanks for this dictionary. I should print this out and give it to all my friends. lol hahaha

  7. I knew never to use the 6 words you mention but I wasn’t sure if it was okay to say “Black” or not. Thanks for helping me understand that it varies. I think I will continue to use the word ‘black’ in the rare cases it’s needed unless I am told by the person that they do not like the term?

  8. Love this!

    I’ve had times when someone asked me, “Are you {insert whatever race or ethnicity here} because you sure are {back-handed compliment}”. It’s crazy.

    It depends on the person. If I know you and your intentions, I don’t mind educating you about who I am.

  9. Great post. In addition to your list, which I too find unacceptable, I personally don’t like “African American”. It feels odd to me. Thank you for taking the time to write about this. I don’t often comment on your blog but I read it faithfully and I think this was a really great post. Bravo.

  10. I prefer black too. I hate when other blacks call me or others a sell out just because we do not live in the hood, have good jobs, or we actually speak regular English.

    I was always the “black friend” or the “black girl” in the class or everywhere I go. I am so use to it now.

  11. Preach! I’m African and have no problem being call black or African or Nigerian. Thing is I have 2 daughters who are US citizens and I don’t know what to encourage people to call them. I find “African American” to be a politically correct mouthful and nothing else

  12. Please add the word “gal” to the list. Many people are not aware of the negative connotation associated with black women and the word “gal”. It’s considered a putdown and was certainly used to make black women feel inferior among her peers, especially in the South. It is the equivalent of saying the n-word or calling someone Aunt Jemima. My advice is to just stick to calling people by their given names.

  13. There are really people that have never talked to a black person before? That’s insane. To me anyway. I grew up in an area with a pretty even racial mix so I just can’t even imagine.

  14. I loved this post. If you had told me a year ago there were people who have never spoken to a black person before I would have said you’re crazy. Fast forward to my life now. I attended a wedding with hubby at the end of last year in Illinois, there were 367 guests in attendance….I was the only black person. I felt like a fish in a bowl. Some people gravitated to talk to me and acted so curious later confessing they had never spoken to or known a black person personally. Others….well let’s just say they raised their noses…one person a former school mate actually told my husband he didn’t know he had “that” type of streak in him. My husband handled that perso don’t worry.
    I’m always amazed when my husband can name on one hand the children that attended his high school in his little town that were non-caucasian.
    I used to get upset with people calling me African American (cause really I was born and raised in the Caribbean and my heritage consists heavily of indian, black and white). Like you, if I have to be called anything, I prefer to be called black.
    Unfortunately as diverse as Miami is, I’ve heard 5 of the names on your list. Not towards me personally, but in talk I’ve overheard.

  15. Can I still call you Jennifer?

    You can still call me white. I will be offended but that’s due to my complete lack of pigment. I’d rather you tell me I’m tan.

    No segue here but can I have your baby? I’m an old pro at poo in the bathtub.

    Now you’re wondering about me, aren’t you.

  16. Great post. You wouldn’t believe how many misunderstandings have stemmed from non blacks not knowing what is and isn’t acceptable to call us. Still, I recommend checking with the person because some blacks don’t like to referred to as black by people who aren’t black.

    Thanks for throwing this out there to educate those who haven’t encounter black people though.

  17. Wow. I just wrote the most witty comment and lost it. It wouldn’t even be funny to me the second time around and, ultimately, I am write for my own entertainment.

    What I said was something about calling you Jennifer and you calling me white and then I’d get toe to toe with you and challenge you with “What did you just call me?” Then we’d face back to back, take ten paces and spin around, draw our mirrors and whoever cries first loses.

    I AM tan! I AM! I even have a tan line!

    Let’s go ahead and add that temper tantrums are the same as crying.

    I lose.

    You be black. I’ll be bleached out ivory.

  18. Great post. I always tell people to refer to me and my family as black. It is to the point and everyone understands. African-American is over inclusive and under inclusive! My husband is black but he is NOT African American – he was born in London and is not an american citizen.

    I don’t mind colored as a term but I don’t want others calling me that lol

  19. Thanks for posting this. I use the term “black” but never know if people prefer “African American.” You’re right- it is a deceptive term (my mother’s boss is a white African American). I live in a very diverse state but I can’t say that I’ve ever had any black friends. Hispanics and Asians yes, but never blacks. I guess we just travel in different social circles.

    I guess “colored” was the “black” of its day. My grandparents used that frequently and it always bothered me.

  20. Thanks for posting this. I use the term “black” but never know if people prefer “African American.” You’re right- it is a deceptive term (my mother’s boss is a white African American). I live in a very diverse state but I can’t say that I’ve ever had any black friends. Hispanics and Asians yes, but never blacks. I guess we just travel in different social circles.

    I guess “colored” was the “black” of its day. My grandparents used that frequently and it always bothered me.

  21. Thanks for posting this. I use the term “black” but never know if people prefer “African American.” You’re right- it is a deceptive term (my mother’s boss is a white African American). I live in a very diverse state but I can’t say that I’ve ever had any black friends. Hispanics and Asians yes, but never blacks. I guess we just travel in different social circles.

    I guess “colored” was the “black” of its day. My grandparents used that frequently and it always bothered me.

  22. AMEN to all of that!!! I too prefer being called black. I had the discussion with my mom and she kinda took offense that I didn’t want to be labeled as “African American.” Yes, it’s the politically correct term but I’m not a big fan of feeling the need to be PC.

    I also don’t like labeling my kids because they are so diverse, black, white and hispanic. And I hated being limited to choosing only one of those when requesting their Social Security numbers.

    P.S. My in-laws live in Canada and I’ve raised the question of what is the “policitally correct” term to call blacks and it is actually African American. They use it from the North American aspect instead of the United States of America. Just in case you were wondering…

  23. I never liked the African American thing either. But when I was on a tour group in Rome they called me (a white person) the European American. I guess I am because I am English and dutch and I live in America but I just like to be American. Who even started the whole add African to it anyway. They don’t say African Europeans.

  24. As a “light-skinned” black American I would love it if people would stop saying “half-breed” and “red bones”. I was a little taken aback when President Obama referred to himself as a “mutt” during a major speech. Not funny, sir. I’m 50ish so I remember “colored” being on my birth certificate…when I was a kid we referred to ourselves as colored or Negro…than during the civil rights era “I’m black and I’m proud” was the mantra (which I personally prefer). African American doesn’t really fit me as I have never been to Africa and there are other cultures in my family.

  25. Working in news taught me you don’t identify people by their race unless it’s pertinent to the story (you know this, of course). I took this to heart and I don’t identify people by their outward traits unless it’s necessary.

    This was an easy transition to make, though. My parents never emphasized race. They taught us to be respectful of people whose skin color was different from ours. They encouraged us to be friends with everyone.

  26. Thank you for this post. I especially like that you acknowledged that what you preferred to be called was only for you, and that each Black individual had his/her own preference. Although we are bound by color, we are individuals with our own thoughts and ideas. I prefer to be called African American, however, it’s not that important to me. I feel that when people meet me, they already know what continent the majority of my ancestors came from. I am also glad that you addressed the issue of many of the biracial members of our community. As an aunt whose nieces and nephews are biracial, I appreciate it.

    Also, the 6 names you cannot call a Black person in this country….you were spot on. I don’t know how many people who told me their best friend was Black when they were growing up.

    Again, thank you, thank you, thank you.

  27. I have to disagree with Mishu. Here in NYC they say all kinds of racist stuff too. The worse part about it is that a lot of the people using the N word are black. It’s something I cannot understand. Growing up everyone called each other that. I can tell that some white people felt weird because they knew they couldn’t say it. I know it makes no sense. I’ve never used the N word and I hate hearing it. It makes me cringe!

    How would you like lil J be identified (other than her name of course)? I don’t mind biracial or half black/half white or Jamaican American.

    Even though I got my citizenship. I still don’t like being called African American because I’m not. I was born in Jamaica, so I rather be called Jamaican, Caribbean, or Black. Someone refered to me as “that black girl” once and I hated it! Fyi, I think “Black” should be used when describing someone. For instance, Question who is she? What does she look like? Answer, “She’s a black woman, tall etc” Get what I’m saying? Sorry for the long post. One more thing, a while back one of your followers refered to you as “colored.” I didn’t want to respond here on your site, so I sent her a message privately. She never responded. She seemed young, and she mentioned that she grew up in a town where there weren’t a lot of “colored” people. I was fuming! But, I think I went east on her. I think it’s important to speak up. Good post.

  28. What about the phrase “woman (or man) of color?” I went to an incredibly liberal school, and many non-Caucasian women (black, Asian, Latina, etc.) preferred that term.

    Personally, it always kinda bugged me, because #1-It lumps multiple races together and kind of perpetuates the “white vs. non-white” mentality.
    #2-Because I’m Caucasian, I’m colorless?

  29. My parents were great at instilling in me respect for all people, even though I grew up in small rural Alabama. I can’t stand to even describe someone by their ethnicity. It just seems wrong. We are all children of God.

    Though I did have to correct my nieces and nephews that have a set of very racist grandparents. Poor kids were gonna get their butts whooped if they ever said those things to someone’s face, but again they had never talked to a black person before. So weird to me. I told them “black” is typically the best term for them to use if they must use a term.

  30. The whole idea of using the six names you mentioned, in my opinion, is totally crazy! It makes me sad that words like that are still being used, because that means 1) people are unwilling to change their attitudes/views and 2)those views are being passed down to younger generations, which does nothing to stop the cycle of prejudice in the US.

    I grew up in the Bay Area of California and had friends from all over the place with lots of different cultures, races, and nationalities. When I moved to another state to attend college some friends from home came to visit. My friends at college would ask “how come you didn’t tell me your friend was Mexican?” or “I didn’t know that she is Asian, why didn’t you say anything?” My response would always be “why does that matter?” It was always asked as if it was a weird secret I was keeping…I really hope that my children can be friendly, kind, and conscientious of people from all walks of life.

    Thanks for the post, Jen!

  31. My family is “white”, but I like to think I accept people for who they are and how they treat me rather than the color of their skin. I am sure I am not perfect at this, but I aim to be better at it everyday. I don’t think I have ever used any of these terms for black people though.

    Not everyone is my family feels the way I do though. My Dad likes to say he using the N word for bad people no matter what color they are, but everytime he uses the word it is about a black person.

    I dated all kinds in my past, but I ended up marrying a white man. Not because he was white, but because he was a better match for me that anyone else I ever met.

    My niece is “mixed”. I hate it when I hear people use these and other dirogitory terms (even her parents make jokes sometimes when they see other mixed couples) I feel bad for what she may have to deal with as she gets older. And her mother has dealt with some issues already; from both sides.

    And don’t even get me started about people who say things like “its not her fault”; we have heard this from family on both sides too!

    There are bad seeds in every race/culture and bad things in history, but we have to move on. I believe we should not judge anyone by their heritage, but by who they are. We should not judge someone by what their family or ancestors may have done either.

    I really wish we did not have to deal with such things and that we could all just live in peace. Sadly, this may likely never happen.

  32. Well, I really don’t know what to say about your post. You have totally directed this post to white people and I was very uncomfortable while reading this feeling I didn’t have a chance from the begining. Do you think we need to be schooled on the subject? I mean if we were as racist as the words you posted do you think we would be reading your blog? I understand something has happened to set you off but you should have took it out on the person saying it not your lovely followers.
    I could be on here complaining right with you saying people tend to call me fat or heavy since I’m a plus size
    women. They will also come up to me and tell me I’m
    pretty, in the face. When this happens I just know that’s
    my que to move on and mark them off my list of people
    to ever talk to again. What I’m getting at is everyone, no
    matter height, weight, sex, race and religion get labeled
    everyday you’re not the only one. It’s going to happen, and you seem to be a well educated women who loves her family and job. You should not have went on a rant about what you don’t like getting called and pointing it out to some (which you mean your white followers). You should let the people that say these things know you are not comfortable with the expressions. I just feel you were way out of line, and I felt very threatened, and singled out because I’m white.

  33. Anonymous, as stated in my post, this was directed to everyone, not just white people. I’ve never had a white person call me an “Uncle Tom”, and other Blacks use the “N word” and I’m just as offended when they use it.

    I’m sorry if you took offense. You really shouldn’t have.

  34. I’m white, and I felt absolutely no offense. These are terms I have never in my life used, and would feel uncomfortable using them, not just because you wrote about them, but because they all have strong history and they should all be considered taboo. Gosh, I truly feel offense when I hear other people use those words. (Sadly, many in the older generations refuse to change their ways of thinking, not all, but at least many that I know) My daughter’s birthday party consisted of an array of kids, and I was shocked, offended, and then had to say many things when her birthday pictures came back. Seriously, I could care less what their skin looks like, I care that all the kids at her party were nice to her and that they all had fun! (Sorry, that’s a little rant, but it really angered me, especially since some of those things were said in front of my daughter, I really don’t want her going to school and telling these other kids the things said about them, by people who have never met them, and know nothing about them except their appearance, people shouldn’t be judged by that, they should be judged by their character, and that’s what we’ve taught our daughter and I don’t want some ignorant person messing that up and making things worse in the future!)
    The thing is that not all people have been taught what is and what is not taboo (ie. comparing someone to Hitler, yeah, unless they are killing races of people they should NEVER be compared to him!) Sometimes it’s just important to just let people know what it and what is not ok.
    It’s not like you were telling us we were bad people, you were just giving information so people didn’t make those same mistakes.

  35. I was a little nervous when your post started, thinking that maybe I had used some of the terms about to be stated. Than I would have to feel guilty for inadvertently offending someone….luckily, Ive never even thought abut using those terms, since it would not make any sense to.

    Why can’t we just call our friends ‘friends’? I dont count how many white friends I have, count the black ones, and the asian ones, and on and on. I just have friends.

    Although I do know an African American. He is white, was born in South Africa, and has dual citizenship in Canada and the US. I prefer to just refer to him as my brother-in-law though.

  36. Oh my god! I was just saying the other day that someone once called me a mutt in highschool when I told them I was mixed. Super offensive. -_-

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