On the Labeling of Black People

Sure, it’s convenient but it can also mask identities

Hello friends,

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about labels - specifically, the labels that frame the views of Black and brown people. Labels in history, and labels now. About how they can be used to unite, and about how they can be used to divide.

What Should You Call Black People?

Let’s start with the point that we Black and brown people don’t always agree about how to label ourselves. I’ve been clear since childhood that I was a Black girl, then I became a Black woman.

But when I was a child, there were terms harking back to an earlier way of describing Black people. For example, the term “colored”, which I heard occasionally in the Caribbean, and met again when I lived in the UK. It’s a term I personally don’t like, because of all the associations with the administration of the system of enslavement, like the one-drop rule, for example. And I hate the N-word with a fiery passion. It’s not something I will ever reclaim, no matter how you spell it.

I’m firmly with those who say “just call me Black”. (Africans in their home countries, of course, often identify with either their countries or other cultural identities; they have to leave the continent for their color to be a factor.)

How to Handle Multiple Heritages

Then there’s the term “mixed” for people with dual or multiple heritages (which, let’s face it, is everybody, if you start digging into DNA, but anyhoo). As someone mentioned in an article I cited recently, it makes it sound like people are cakes, which they are not, and kind of erases their heritage.

Other terms such as “biracial” at least acknowledge their multiple identities, though that’s not perfect either. Since race is an artificial concept created to oppress Black and brown people, how can it mean anything to be biracial? Or, for that matter, “mixed race”. I guess that’s a question for another time.

My resident expert, similar to some writers, prefers that we see people with multiple heritages as full expressions of those heritages. Even if as a brown person, she’ll still be seen as Black, she wants to acknowledge the fullness of both her Caribbean and her English heritage.

Are All Black People African-American? No!

Then there’s the term “African-American”. Some Black Americans use it; others don’t. Non-Black people may assume that every Black person they see in the US is African-American, but they’d be wrong. There are Black people in the US from all over the world - Caribbean people, Africans, Brits and more. They’re more likely to identify as Black than African-anything, especially coming from societies in which any association with things African was derided. While we’d all like to think that we finally see Black as beautiful - and many do - even in the 21st century, there are those who call things African with a derisive curl of the lip. I don’t agree with that stance, either, but it definitely exists.

Hiding Identity Behind Alphabet Soup

Next, there are the acronyms - BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic), which I believe replaced the older BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), POC (People of Color), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). The good thing about them is that in the main, most people know you’re talking about Black and brown people, but that’s also the bad thing. Identities get erased and the waters get muddied. There’s a pressure to be super inclusive, even when you’re only talking about one community. And there’s a tendency to use the terms interchangeably, when there are multiple identities bound up in them.

Who’s the Minority?

Then there’s the term “minority” or “minority ethnic”. This one always bothers me because I don’t feel like a minority. There are more non-white people in the world than white people. Black and brown people are actually the MAJORITY of the world’s population, even if we may not be the majority in individual countries. Calling people minorities may be descriptive, but it is also dismissive, and tends to be used to permit a whole lot of institutionally racist behavior and systems.

Of late, I’ve been using the term “people of the global majority” - I’d love to know who invented it so I can give proper credit (UPDATE: This powerful phrase was coined by Rosemary Campbell-Stephens) - to remind me of that fact. And if everyone used it, wouldn’t it then seem more important to act in a way that benefited that majority, like say, ending systemic racism? Food for thought.

How I Handle Issues of Naming

My own approach - and you’ll have to choose your own - is to say what I mean. As a Black person, I speak most knowledgeably about the experiences of Black people. (I know a helluva lot about whiteness too, as every Black person does). If I’m talking about Latinos, I talk about Latinos (though it’s not my community and I can only speak about the experiences that may intersect with my own). Ditto Indigenous people.

Blanket labels can help us have a conversation, but they can also obscure vastly different cultural and personal experiences. As an anti-racist, it’s up to you to look behind and beyond the labels, and to hear individual stories, and to know - or find out - when a particular term is right to use, and when it’s not. And remember, if you’re not sure, just ask people how they identify.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.