The N-word: What We Prefer To Be Called.

Via Sojourner Marable Grimmett
on Jul 19, 2010
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My former boss cornered me in my cubical, looked into my eyes and asked me what I preferred to be called.

She is a tall, lanky, pretty white woman whose hair curls in the Southern humidity.

I hesitated before responding to her question. My childhood facial expressions told on me; moments later, I finally responded, “called?” I said. My frown lines deepened in-between my un-plucked, naturally shaped brows.

Bashful but determined, she whispered in my ear, “Black” or “African American?” I could tell that she had summoned up the courage to ask me this important question. I couldn’t bear to see her sweat any longer and replied, “either is fine, just don’t call me a Negro.” I flashed my right dimple and smiled.

Unexpectedly, she became stiff while I became confused; “I’m just kidding,” I said and calmed her nerves. She exhaled from relief. She was undoubtedly nervous, but in retrospect, also brave. Many times people are too afraid to ask questions regarding the touchy subject of “race.”

Little did she know, her question lifted a veil of pain from my childhood of being called the wrong name.

Everyone remembers the first time that they were discriminated against, whether it was in reference to your race, sex, class, or sexual orientation. My first encounter with racism was when I was five years old, at a magical theme park in Anaheim, California. While crossing the jungle gym, I encountered another child head-on. He was about my age—white, with red freckles and matching hair. Unable to get around me, he yelled in my face with an evil snarl, “Move Nigger!”

We both knew the history of that word and the pain it carried. I grasped onto the net and held on tightly trying not to brush his shoulder as he crawled pass me. I wanted to defend myself, but was left speechless.

I am a daughter of a former field worker. My mom, Hazel Ann Harris picked cotton just 45 minutes outside of Atlanta in the early 1960s. My permed straightened hair, shaved legs and Masters degree fool people about my roots. My hardships are nowhere like those experienced by my mom, and my memories of childhood segregation are not the depictions of segregated “Black” and “White” drinking fountains and bathrooms. However, subtle and invisible racism does plague my experience.

Being called the N-word at a young age is unbelievably painful and memorable.  While I cannot speak on behalf of everyone in my community, in my experience, truthfully, the terms African-American and Black are so interchangeable that most Blacks won’t be offended whichever term you use to describe us, as long as you don’t refer to us as a Negro or, God forbid, the N-word.

Children talk about race and the color of their pigmentation, as they hold their arms up to one another in comparison. My sons will know what’s in a name, and in the history and meaning of terms used to describe their ethnicity.

They will also have the wisdom, like their mother, to educate those who are fearful to ask the questions about race in order to claim the respect necessary to be called what we prefer based on any of our given identities.

Image: 1943 Colored Waiting Room Sign


About Sojourner Marable Grimmett

Sojourner Marable Grimmett has a BA in communications from Clark Atlanta University and an MA in media studies from Pennsylvania State University. She is a stay-at-work mom and her experience in higher education spans over 10 years working in student services and enrollment management. Sojourner previously worked at CNN, Georgia Public Television, and as an AmeriCorp member at Harvard University’s Martin Luther King Jr. after-school program. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Roland and two young sons, Roland Jay and Joshua. Visit her blog and follow her on twitter.


17 Responses to “The N-word: What We Prefer To Be Called.”

  1. Lisa Bonner says:

    It's amazing how one particular word has so much force. I've been called many bad words in my lifetime, but it is the N-word that brings back instant vivid memories. As I have grown older the word does not have as great an impact as in the past, only because I'm able to recognize the fear and insecurities of the offending party. Additionally, I agree with the writer's assessment about the interchangeable identification of the terms Black and African-American. I'll usually say that I'm Black first as oppose to initially saying African-American. However, if I sense that a person wants me to be more specific about my culture or nationality, then I'll gladly mention that I'm African-American.

  2. LeTasha Risher says:

    Back in April of this year, I had to show my birth certificate to board a cruise ship to the Bahamas. The agent on the ship looked at my birth certificate and was in shocked. I asked him if something was wrong and he apologized for his reaction. He was astonished when he saw "Negro” listed as race. He said he never saw Negro on a birth certificate. I was more shocked that he was African-American and never saw Negro on a birth certificate.

  3. Blake says:

    I think that this takes tremendous courage on everyone's part, talking openly about race. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thanks for this, Sojourner. Promoting it on and , with thanks for sharing.

  5. Bianca says:

    At last, it appears a real conversation about race–the "pink elephant" in the room most Americans–especially those who are white–seem afraid to talk about–is finally beginning to take place outside of the so-called "Black" community. Onward, peeps. For more real stories about what it means to be Black in America, and how this is inextricably linked with being a socially conscious, green citizen, check out, now airing locally in Chicago on Fox & my50, or read the monthly column in Mindful Metropolis magazine here:….

    Let's keep an open, honest dialogue going! It's the only way we will be able to take a close look at ourselves and heal the deep-seated wounds that keep us separate from one another, and therefore disempowered.

  6. Leigha Butler says:

    Thanks for your heartfelt post.

  7. Thanks for the post! Great site!

  8. Thanks LeTasha! My mom's birth certificate says, "Colored." We've come a very long way!

  9. I appreciate your post Lisa. Thank you!

  10. Great post Cindy! Thank you!

  11. Thanks Balavan! I really appreciate your post!

  12. Lorena says:

    Espero que os sirva de ayuda chicas, un beso.

  13. Hola, me interesa mucho este tema y toda esta informacion me viene de maravilla, saludos…

  14. I’ve being allways confused how a afroamerican prefered to be called, is kind of difficult to know if one can be rude.
    Thanks for sharing!