Celebrate Black History Month: What’s in a Name

I am going to finally say something that has not been clear. I do not identify as African American. Now before anyone gets up in arms about my race. I do have African ancestry, I am the descendant of slaves, I do have dark skin, African features and 4B hair. There is no question there when it comes to what I am racially. I will fill out forms that say African American, I use BIPOC, and POC depending on the crowd. However, if you ask me what I consider myself, I will say I am Black American or just Black.

A few months ago, I was helping with a library program that was teaching children public speaking and social justice. It was a wonderful program that I enjoyed a great deal. During one of the meetings of this program I noticed that some of the children were afraid to use the term Black to describe my racial group and even said as much. The children I knew were very concerned about being respectful, but it also struck me about how much confusion there was in what to call me and others who look like me.

Sticks and Stone…pfft Names DO matter

There have been many names over the centuries that have been used to refer to Black people. Some are considered still acceptable, while many might result in fisticuffs if directed to the wrong Black person. Often the age of the Black person comes into play on what name they identify with if you ask them. This can lead to many misunderstandings.

The term African American gained popularity in the 1980s through the efforts of Jesse Jackson but the name goes back further than that. One of the first references to the name dates back to 1782 which appears on a sermon that was printed in Philadelphia. Prior to the adoption of the term, Black people were referred to as Negro or Colored. Negro as a word means black in both Spanish and Portuguese and the term Negro is still deemed as acceptable to be used in Portuguese to refer to Black people and is still used for historical institutions like the United Negro College Fund. However, the term fell out of favor in the 1960s, which is also the time when Afro-American was used. That said, the term African-American can be confusing as it can be used to describe any one of African descent though it is most often used for those of us who are of Black African descent. Furthermore, it is often misused as there are many Black people here in America that do not trace their roots to American slavery but still share genetic roots and commonality with Africa.

When my mother was a young girl the term that was used was Colored. Like Negro the term has also fallen out of favor and reserved for historical institutions like the NAACP which was founded in 1909 when “Colored” was still the common term used to describe Black people. The reason why colored fell out of favor was due to its usage during Jim Crow. The word colored was used often during legal segregation as an indicator of where Black people could or couldn’t go or to indicate what was or was not for Black use. However, after The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s this too fell out of favor.

When I was a teen the term that was used often was “minorities” and I will admit that I sometimes fall into using the term because during my formative late high school years it was very popular. Though the issue with that term is it does not say specifically what group is being referred to as there are many types of minorities - ethnic, religious, cultural and can be influenced by region. The term People of Color or POC helps to further narrow the scope of what group is being referred to and isn’t an entirely new term as it can be dated back to the 1800s but the problem with POC is the same as 'minorities' - while it does define that we are talking about people of darker skin it lumps every one in that fits that description. This is also wrong as the issues that Black people face aren’t the same as other groups with darker complexions. For example, while I do care about fair immigration policies, I’m not as emotionally invested as other groups may be because it speaks more closely to the struggles they face.

The term BIPOC or Black, Indigenous People of Color that has been getting heavier circulation since 2010 tries to address this by pulling out Black and Indigenous people from the general POC. The reason for this change is because systematic racism still deeply effects both groups, and both have suffered from genocide and slavery here in America. BIPOC reinforces the fact that Black and Indigenous populations have and continue to experience discrimination that is unique and redresses the erasure that the general term POC has on both groups.


I am sure you are wondering well, why do you use the term BIPOC to talk about yourself in a general sense. I will tell you, but before I dive into why I want to point something out. You may notice that I always capitalize the B in Black. This is 100% intentional and important to why I use the term Black. Black people make up 13.4% of the population, which is around 40+ million people. To do anything less to describe any population is insulting and something I find DEEPLY rude because often Black people have been stripped of their humanity and discriminated against due to our shade. We are more than just the color of our skin. Using Black as a reference to my people speaks to our shared history, struggle, and African ancestry no matter our personal countries of origin. I use this term to feel more connected to others in the African diaspora though I do understand that the particulars of my background may not be the same as the person who shares my complexion. I feel personally that this connection is important as unity on issues of social justice matter, even though we are NOT a monolithic people. However, the use of that word is deeply personal to me and me alone. Not all Black people respond to or prefer to be referenced by essentially the color of our skin. To put this in context this is no different than asking pronouns and being open to using those pronouns. So I say the next time you encounter a Black person take the time to ask how they would like to be referred to if you need to make a reference to their race and to make sure whatever term they prefer that you use proper capitalization.