What’s in a name? ‘Mixed,’ ‘biracial,’ ‘black’

Editor’s Note: Martha S. Jones is a professor of history, law and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan. She wrote a previous piece that explored her journey identifying as both biracial and black. Join her for a live Google Plus Hangout at 6 p.m. ET Monday about the evolving identity of African-Americans.

Story highlights

Professor Martha Jones sparks debate about how we identify black Americans

"The language of race has always been a moving target," she writes

Jones: Listen to what people call themselves for guidance on how to address them

CNN  — 

When the census listed Negro as a race option in 2010, a controversy erupted.

My students at the University of Michigan were eager to denounce the term’s use: “Negro? It has to go!”

Professor Martha Jones

To their ears, “Negro” was derogatory, too close in tone to the other, more infamous n-word. I played devil’s advocate, to test their thinking: “But some black elders still self-identify as Negroes.” “It’s preferable to its predecessor, colored.”

“Don’t some of you belong to the National Council of Negro Women chapter?”

I could not shake their thought.

I was confronting a generational divide. For my grandmother, “Negro” was a term of respect. To my students, it was an epithet.

‘Negro’ on form draws ire of prospective juror in New York

It’s no surprise that we feel unsettled when a new language of identity takes over the old. The language of race – constructed variously in science, law, politics and culture – has always been a moving target, and we aren’t the first generation to confront it.

My CNN essay “Biracial and also black” generated a debate about the words we use to describe African-Americans. I called myself mixed-race, a phrase that includes identities rooted in multiple races.

Another term, biracial, some readers pointed out, assumes one identity borne out of two. It is, perhaps, too narrow for a discussion about identity in the 21st century.

Some readers also rejected the phrase “African-American,” deeming it awkward and inaccurate. Renee wrote: “We are not from Africa, I was born here in the U.S. I don’t know anyone there, can’t even say my ancestors are from there.”

Those who defended the use of African-American noted it was rooted in history, culture and personal choice. Others offered up alternatives, like “person of color,” “black,” “halfrican-American” and “mutt.”

Some just preferred using a simple description: “human.”

Words seem to fail us, even as they are all we have.

The debate from my essay illustrates how difficult it can be when we rely on linguistic conventions to express the complexity of human identities.

Even so, there are words that have fallen out of favor. N