On “African-American” and “people of color”

26 Nov

On November 2nd’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Oliver featured some of the local legislators running for midterm re-election, including Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, who, addressing her state legislature, argued that black people as a group just don’t “want to work hard in school… a lot of times,” which is perhaps why they end up in prison. During her presentation, Kern rephrased “black” as “people of color” (who, rather than work hard, just “want it given to them”) to which Oliver responded:

“Look, Sally, if you’re going to be that racist in public, there’s really no need for you to use the term ‘people of color.'” [Cue audience laughter.] (http://www.hbo.com/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver#/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver/episodes/1/23-november-2-2014/video/ep-23-clip-state-legislatures-and-alec-.html/eNrjcmbO0CzLTEnNd8xLzKksyUx2zs8rSa0oUc-PSYEJBSSmp-ol5qYy5zMXsjGyMXIyMrJJJ5aW5BfkJFbalhSVpgIAXbkXOA==)

This moment reminded me of coverage of Darren Wilson’s trial for his shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I’ve heard at least one journalist refer to Wilson as “white” and Brown as “African-American.” And I don’t think it’s just confusion about the difference between race and ethnicity that drives that choice of language in a preconceived and scripted news story.

There is a lot of confusion about the language we have and use to talk about identity–and not just race and ethnicity: sexuality, body shape and size, socioeconomic status and class also tend to put people on edge when it comes to naming ourselves and social differences. It’s not uncommon for folks to look for rules about what words are OK to say. And to make them up, based on experience, fear, a desire to be or just look like a good person, hearsay…

Hence, notions that words like “people of color” and “African-American” are safe, universally approved and even complimentary.

But the truth is:

  • There is no list of pre-approved words that you can slap on to other people with impunity. The problem lies in labeling someone rather than asking how they identify.
  • To simplify (or complicate) the issue of “right” language, not everyone cares. A 2013 Gallup poll (http://www.gallup.com/poll/163706/blacks-hispanics-no-preferences-group-labels.aspx) that asked people who self-identified as black or African-American, or Hispanic or Latino how they prefer to be identified found:

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My takeaway from this poll is not free license to label people on the presumption that they don’t care, but rather that I don’t know to whom it matters and when it matters to them. Because personally how I identify (including whether I am identifying racially or ethnically) depends on context, and how I would respond to the question “How would you like to be identified: Asian, Asian-American, Korean, Korean-American or person of color?” also depends on context.

  • “Black”,” “African-American” and “people of color” aren’t synonymous. Black is a racial identity, African-American is an ethnic identity, and people of color is a racial identity inclusive of but not exclusive to black people. So what language you use depends on what you’re trying to say. You can’t just swap a loose synonym, vague euphemism or only sometimes-related term for an identity you’re trying to name. While the fear of offending/appearing to be racist (or sizeist or homophobic or otherwise intolerant or ignorant) is legitimate, using unclear or inaccurate language only suggests that perhaps you are, in fact, racist/sizeist/homophobic. Or ignorant.
  • Labeling one racial term as taboo (ex. “black”) and another acceptable (ex. “white” or “Asian”) suggests that being black is taboo, unfortunate, unspeakable or improper. It’s like lowering our voices when we say “fat” or “poor” (if we even ever say those words aloud), but not hesitating when we’re naming “thin” or “middle class.” The truth is, sometimes thin isn’t good. But we assume it is and that others are comfortable with being labeled “thin.” Of course, there is also power in going unnamed. As an example, “transgender” is a term more and more people are familiar with, even as many people are still unfamiliar with “cisgender” (which means identifying with the sex you were assigned at birth. The majority of people are cisgender. I wonder how many know this word to describe ourselves). Why don’t we bother naming and teaching about cisgender identity? Because it’s the norm. Of course you’re cisgender–unless otherwise specified. What am I getting at? In the instance of the Wilson trial coverage, it’s critical to name that Brown was black because the default assumption is that someone is white (unless otherwise specified). And it’s critical to name that Wilson is white because it wasn’t just Brown who had a race. And it’s critical to be intentional in discerning whether and how we need to talk about race and ethnicity when talking about Brown’s death. Because research consistently suggests that we perceive race before ethnicity when we first encounter someone, we at least need to talk about race when we talk about Wilson shooting Brown. And so, in this case, that means saying “black.”

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