I was not born in the US, so let me clarify why I'm asking such question:

In Portuguese, the word "Negro" is the correct term when referring to the race, where calling somebody "Black", the color, would be considered offensive most of the time.

So is "Negro" in America a bad, offensive word, or is it the right term when referring to the race?

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    A prophecy: as most controversial topics, this one is going to raise to the tops. See also relevant topics of ELU. – bytebuster Jan 29 '13 at 17:45
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    @Carlo_R. Vocabulary is surely as important to learning a language as grammar is. – Mark Beadles Jan 29 '13 at 20:37
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    @Carlo_R. I agree with your discomfort, but here at ELL I think that this is an important topic at least for speakers in the US. It would be a shame if a poor word choice caused a problem for someone. – Mark Beadles Jan 29 '13 at 20:44
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    @MarkBeadles Specially since it is the correct word in a country, but apparently controversial/wrong in another. Hence this question. – user47 Jan 29 '13 at 21:10
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    This question is fine. It is on topic and can be useful for other. I don't see any reason why it should be closed. Voting to reopen. – Cerberus Jan 30 '13 at 10:22
up vote 32 down vote accepted

Negro is currently considered somewhat offensive in the United States, and it's not advisable to use it if you are first learning the language.

I say "somewhat" because there are circumstances where it is still used, but those circumstances are historically and socially complex, and even Americans still struggle with those circumstances.

It's best to either look for a more neutral term - black or African-American are currently* better choices - or to avoid the reference to race except where necessary. It's also a good idea to take the cue from the person you are describing - what word, if any, would they be comfortable with you using?

*Note: racial relations and language in the US continue to evolve, and what is proper today might be offensive tomorrow.

  • Can you hint what is an example of these circumstances? – SF. Jan 29 '13 at 17:46
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    @SF. I could not do it justice in a short post. The circumstances are an integral part of the post-slavery, post-civil rights culture of multi-racial America. It depends on the race/culture/ethnicity of the people speaking, in-group vs. out-group status, the formality of the context, the history of the situation/place/time, etc. Suffice it to say that calling a person "That Negro over there...." is more likely to be offensive, but discussing The United Negro College Fund in a formal context is less likely to be offensive. – Mark Beadles Jan 29 '13 at 18:46
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    Strangely enough, UNCF's web site uses the acronym exclusively. It takes digging into the annual report to get the full name of this organization. – JoeTaxpayer Jan 9 '17 at 2:42
  • Using "negro" (especially if pronounced NEE-grow or NIG-row) can reasonably suggest that the person using it would like to go back to the status quo that prevailed before Civil Rights Days, when Black people "knew their place", lynching was still a real possibility for any imagined transgression, and, with vanishingly-few exceptions, all the wealth and power of the nation was in White hands. When cops can still, in the 21st c., roust, assault, and even shoot Black people dead with impunity, it should be clear why Black people are very alive to any hint that things could get even worse again. – MMacD Jan 20 '17 at 11:30

The New Oxford American Dictionary has a note about using Negro.

Since the Black Power movement of the 1960s, however, when the term black was favored as the term to express racial pride, Negro has dropped out of favor and now seems out of date or even offensive in both US and British English. The 2010 US Census questionnaire was criticized when it retained the racial designation Negro as an option (along with Black and African Am.). The Census Bureau defended its decision, citing the 2000 Census forms, on which more than 56,000 individuals handwrote "Negro" (even though it was already on the form). Apparenly, Negro continues to be the identity strongly preferred by some Americans.

The NOAD itself, in the definition of Negro, reports the word as dated, and often offensive.

About Black, the note the NOAD has is the following:

Black, designating Americans of African heritage, became the most widely used and accepted term in the 1960s and 1970s, replacing Negro. It is not usually capitalized: black Americans. Through the 1980s, the more formal African American replaced black in much usage, but both are now generally acceptable. Afro-American, first recorded in the 19th century and popular in the 1960s and 1970s, is now heard mostly in anthropological and cultural contexts.

protected by J.R. Feb 13 '14 at 10:50

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