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Aethelflaed's avatar

When writing history papers, should you change how groups are referred to to reflect modern sensibilities?

Asked by Aethelflaed (13697 points ) May 9th, 2012

I’m writing a history paper, and in it, the author of a primary source (Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”) refers to black people as “Negroes”, quite possibly because it was written in 1949. So my question: when I am paraphrasing, referencing her work, do I change “negroes” to “black people”, or do I use the words the author used?

I’m partly asking as a larger social justice issue, but I definitely need an answer as to what would be considered right when I hand this paper into my professor.

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18 Answers

janbb's avatar

I would use the term as it is used within the original work but you might consider putting it in quotation marks. There is a strong case to be made for considering terms in the historical context in which they were created and I would not Bowdlerize them or expect that your Professor would want it done.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@janbb Perfect! Thank you so much!

WestRiverrat's avatar

You might want to add something in the footnotes about your using the terms the author did.

TexasDude's avatar

Edit: should have read the details more thoroughly.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Well, if I’m quoting her directly, I don’t change anything. Everything else is your words so I would use the words I use with a footnote that my language reflects my historical moment as hers does hers and that I am also making an assumption of sorts that black people is who she meant by negroes…as you know things aren’t clear cut in race.

lillycoyote's avatar

Personally, if is not a direct quote, I would use more modern language. The Purdue Online Writing Lab guide to paraphrasing agrees with @janbb on the quotation marks. It suggests that you use ”... quotation marks to identify any unique term or phraseology you have borrowed exactly from the source”

Charles's avatar

“when I am paraphrasing, referencing her work, do I change “negroes” to “black people”, or do I use the words the author used?”

Use the words the author used. 1) Who says it is offensive? 2) Even if it is offensive, it isn’t your quote, 3) You risk removing accuracy from your report

submariner's avatar

For a paraphrase, it is appropriate to change outdated terms to modern ones. In a direct quotation, you should use the author’s exact words.

A paraphrase is supposed to convey the sense of what the author said, but in your words rather than the exact words the author used. Outdated racial terms have acquired connotations that they did not have when the author wrote them, and so may needlessly distract your audience from the author’s point, especially if they think you are using those terms yourself rather than just quoting the author.

Aethelflaed's avatar

I’m going to go with @janbb‘s suggestion of quotation marks; it seems the easiest way to make clear that those are her words and not mine, without potentially whitewashing any racial issues the piece may have. Thanks everyone!

YARNLADY's avatar

I have seen the word (sic) placed next to words like that.

janbb's avatar

@YARNLADY (sic) would be used to indicate that the mistake in grammar, spelling or syntax was from the original author but not in the case of terminology that has changed. At least, that is my understanding.

YARNLADY's avatar

@janbb added immediately after a quoted word or phrase (or a longer piece of text), indicates that the quoted words have been transcribed exactly as spelled or presented in the original source, complete with any erroneous spelling or other presentation.

janbb's avatar

Exactly what I was saying but I don’t think you would use it to indicate that the word “Negro” was not of your liking. Using quotation marks around a quoted text indicate that it is exactly as written; “sic” is just used to indicate errors.

lillycoyote's avatar

Also sic would only be used in a direct quotation, as far as I know, and as @janbb mentions, it is used to indicated that any errors in spelling, grammar and syntax are those of the person who is being quoted, and are not errors made by the person quoting. @Simone_De_Beauvoir is paraphrasing, not quoting.

I haven’t written an academic paper in about 25 years so perhaps I shouldn’t have weighed in, but I’m in now so I’ll finish. It starting to come back to me… with a lot of help from the Perdue Online Writing Lab that is. :-)

Obviously a direct quote is a direct quote so there’s no issue there. In a summary I would update the language.

In the case I think I would, and this is without knowing the exact text you are going to be paraphrasing I would some kind of mix of paraphrasing and quotations as the Purdue site discusses here. the section on “intertwining” summaries, paraphrasing and quotes because simply putting quotes just around the word “negro” seems awkward. But it’s hard to say how this approach might work in your paper without knowing the text you and taking some time with it.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@lillycoyote Technically, it’s around “American Negroes”. But it worked out fine.

SavoirFaire's avatar

The whole point of a paraphrase is to use your own words. If you need to use Beauvoir’s terms in a paraphrase for reasons of clarity, then I agree with @janbb‘s suggestion of using quotation marks. Otherwise, I would use only terms that I personally found appropriate. They are my sentences, after all. I cannot be held accountable for the content of a direct quote, but people are quite within their rights to hold me accountable for what I say in my own voice. I would also make a note of the fact that I was using updated language and that Beauvoir was using what was considered the correct term for her time.

lillycoyote's avatar

@SavoirFaire That’s what suggested at first, at least what I would do personally, but I seemed to be outnumbered. :-)

wildpotato's avatar

I would not mind using “Negro” if that is what’s in the quote and I wanted to quote directly. If it made me uncomfortable, I would add a footnote directly after the word and at the bottom of the page talk about the quote – acknowledge that this is an anachronism and state that I will use the unaltered quote for reasons x y and z. I might use [sic], depending on what audience I was preparing the paper for. janbb & lilycoyote are right that [sic] is normally used for grammatical or syntactical errors, but it is also ok to use it to highlight “bad” content, especially if it’s an anachronism like “Negro”. However, Wiki says several usage guides recommend that it not be used to indicate disagreement with the source, and I can see why – it seems kind of obnoxious because by using it you indicate that you disagree with the usage, but offer no reason why you chose to include it anyway. The footnote method is more straightforward, and it makes me feel respected as a reader when a writer does this sort of thing for me. I wrote my undergrad thesis on theodicy (the issue that God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent and yet evil exists in the world), and had to deal with how to refer to God using personal pronouns. Rather than dance around the issue by using “he” sometimes and “she” others, or “she” all the time, or avoid the issue by just using “God” every time natural language called for a personal pronoun, after many conversations with my profs I decided to footnote my first usage of a personal pronoun and explain why I was using it as I did, and how I would be handling the pronouns in the rest of the paper. My readers (two extremely experienced academics) were happy with this solution.

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