Writing about race historically: a quick guide

As we all know, conventional terms for racial identification evolve over time. As we study the past and read sources written in a different era, we often see terms for racial or ethnic identification (“Oriental,” “colored” etc.) that are no longer preferred, or indeed can be offensive. It can sometimes be challenging for the student of history to know which terms are outmoded, and what terms to use when writing about the past.

Here are two basic guidelines that apply to most circumstances:

1. When quoting a source from the past, use the terminology of the source. For example, you might write:
Frederick Douglass in 1864 argued, “If the negro knows enough to fight for his country, he knows enough to vote.”

2. When writing in your own words about the past, use contemporary terminology, not the terms used by the historical source. So, if you were continuing on after the sentence above, you might write:
African Americans consistently argued that their service in the Union Army proved their worth as equal citizens.

But it would not be correct form to write:
Negroes consistently argued that their service in the Union Army proved their worth as equal citizens.

because “Negro” is no longer a preferred term for Black people in contemporary context, and that’s the context in which your historical “voice” is speaking.

So, let’s look at an example of this in action. In the passage below, historian Thomas Sugrue opens a chapter of his book Origins of the Urban Crisis with a quote using the term “Negro” – a commonplace term used by both white and black Americans in the period he’s studying (the 1940s). But notice in the body of the text, when writing in his own voice, Sugrue uses the terms “black” or “African American” interchangeably.

from Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Using preferred contemporary terminology not only demonstrates your professionalism and skill as a historical writer, but also extends dignity and respect to people of all identities – whether they live in the present, or hundreds of years in the past.

If you’re unsure about the best terms to use, check with your professor, or consult one of the following helpful style guides: