Race and language: an exchange between Ernest Rice McKinney and Hal Draper (1950)

Author: 

Ernest Rice McKinney and Hal Draper

To the Editor:

In Susan Green's article in LABOR ACTION of January 30 one may read the following expressions "white Negress,"' "Negress," "while Negress," and "educated Negress." Four places in which "Negress" is used and it is not caught by anybody: editor, assistant editor or proof reader.

Lioness, tigress, "Negress": I suggest more vigilance. An article may come in the future with "Jewess" or "Chinaman." I remember that a former Chinese member once wrote an article for LABOR ACTION containing the term "Chinaman." It might be a good idea to put some of these really important things into the style sheet. For example: Puerto Rican and not Porto Rican. A Scotch national is a Scotsman and not a Scotchman. What formerly was a Dutchman is now a Netherlander.

These are not all exact parallels with Negress but they are similar.

I don't claim to know what most Negroes think about an expression such as "white Negroes." To me it is objectionable. Anti-Negro white people, particularly in the South, use the expression "white nigger" to describe mulattoes who are indistinguishable from those who are said to be "white." This however is not of equal importance with the use of "Negress." There are far too. many well-intentioned but not so well-informed people in the U. S. who believe that a correct "line" and a proper attitude are all the qualifications necessary for discussing the Negro or coming to his defense, that it isn't really necessary to know much about real Negroes or Negro life as it is actually lived by real flesh and blood Negroes.

I have often marveled at the certainty and sureness with which some of these well-intentioned people write about Negroes and the whole question of Jim Crow. I am certainly interested and I think that I have, some basic understanding of the problem but I would certainly hesitate to hand in an article (say, to "Commentary") on The Jewish Problem in the U. S.

If I did write such an article I would feel obligated to possess something more than good intentions. I would try to learn something about the problem from the Jews themselves. I would want to know how they reacted to such expressions as "black Jews" or "Jewess." I would maintain the same attitude if I were dealing with the Poles in the anthracite region or the "hill-billies" in Kentucky.

For example I surely would not approach them by using the expression "hill-billy." When I wrote above "lioness, tigress, 'Negress'" I was not inventing something to clinch an argument.

Historically and sociologically the use of "Negress" was part and parcel of the general denigration of the Negro.

It represented some progress, of course, since the most vicious of the Negro-baiters used the term "nigger wench." Negress was used in the main by those who, while rejecting the "nigger wench" notion, still were not convinced that Negroes were entitled to the same respect as white people.

These same people, of course, wrote "negro" and not Negro.

It must be clear that it is particularly important to be aware of this sort of thing when dealing with the question of the Negro woman. There are white folk who really believe that there is some valid comparison to be made between a Negro woman and 8 lioness or tigress: they are both amoral, or, on a higher level, the Negro woman has "primitive" conceptions of morality.

To be sure, there are Negroes who go for this "primitive" mumbo-jumbo in connection with Negroes, which was invented by white people who were either stupid, ignorant, venal or prejudiced. Among these are the people who will tell you that "all Negroes can sing" or who will rave over "bop" but who feel that Negroes who aspire to grand opera are deny ing themselves the opportunity to make "the Negro's unique contribution to our civilization," which of course should be "bop" or something else rescued from the "primitive." I am reminded again of the socialist woman in New York City who, on being told by me that I was born in West Virginia asked me: "Then how is it that you talk like us?" I am not certain what she meant by "us" nor by "talk like us." However I explained that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all spoke English; that my mother and father spoke better English than she did and that the grammar school I attended in West Virginia was dedicated to the same dull English-language routine as the New York City schools. Furthermore I told her that all Negroes did not have something known as a Negro or a Southern dialect, just as all Jews or all Irishmen did not have a dialect or brogue. And so it might be wise for writers and editors alike to give some attention to these things.

Ernest Rice McKINNEY

Comrade McKinney is entirely correct in his objection to the term "Negress." A few lines were also received from Kate Leonard to the same effect. Sorry it was not caught.

The train of thought aroused in Comrade McKinney by the question raises some interesting points in terminology, but not all seem to be well-taken, though several have long been subjects of discussion. The NAACP national office informs us that the term "white Negro" is rather commonly used in the Negro press, though—as in the case of many other terms widely used—there are some objections. The proportions are indeterminate. Comrade McKinney himself—to illustrate the complexities of the question—uses a practice which, in many sections of the Negro press, is strictly avoided: spelling out the derogatory term "nigger" even when used in any fashion. Many Negro publications print it only "n-r." There is virtually no controversy about our own usage in always capitalizing Negro—in spite of the fact that the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "the Supreme Authority," lowers the "n." To go farther afield with Comrade McKinney while we are at it: the Netherlands Information Bureau authoritatively tells us that the terms "Dutch," "the Dutch." and "Dutchman" are perfectly OK—they use it themselves. (The use of "Dutchman" to refer to a German is another matter.) The terms Scotchman-Scotsman and Puerto Rican have a different relevance. We are aware of the point made about the former, but it is primarily a matter of linguistic national purism rather than avoidance of a derogatory term. Merriam-Webster notes "Scotsman" as the form commonly used by the Scotch (or Scottish) people, but fully OKs "Scotchman." If this authority is considered suspect because of its position on "Negro," it can be added that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary list "Scotsman" as the Scotch form of the word and "Scotchman" as the English form.

And if someone writes in to say that this is because of the well-known British antipathy to the Sc--, we will run for refuge to the Society for Pure English, which had some good Scot-men among its leading members.

To some extent the term . "Scotchmen" has acquired objections to it because of its use in "Scotch jokes," but we can testify to having heard such jokes told with scrupulous attention to using the term "Scotsmen"— not to offend! "Puerto Rico" is still another matter. "Porto Rico" is a former spelling, now obsolete, which still hangs on (improperly) for no other reason than that it is easier for English-speaking people. There is no question of derogation here at all.—Ed.