I was recently reading about racial identity formation and the author of the book explicitly rejected the term “non-White.” This is a term I use frequently in previous posts, so I began reconsidering the language I use in race-based discussions. I want to start by saying that I am reflecting my opinions on the language I choose to use. I do not mean to say anything about any large group of people (e.g., all x people like to be called z). What sort of words do we use to identify people? Why does it matter?
Why does it matter?
At the risk of being dismissed as an attempt to be “politically correct,” I will explain that language matters. It is more than political correctness. Language is a window into the brain. This has been well-established. The type of language we use and the way we structure sentences can speak volumes about our thought processes. It only follows that, in order to be critical of a thought process (perhaps even a discriminatory thought process), one can begin by being critical of the language one uses. Going beyond the individual, language sends a message. The way we talk is suggestive of what we find important, valuable, worthwhile, beautiful, as well as what we feel is unimportant, worthless, negative, or somehow less. These messages are then interpreted and, over time, internalized by members of society, creating and perpetuating a cycle of thought.
In short, I believe changing the way people speak is a first step in changing the way people think.
The words we use…
In my experience, this is an acceptable term. It acknowledges a person of a darker skin tone as well as involuntary membership in a subordinate group in U.S. race culture. Although, the danger lurking in this term is that a person with strong ethnic ties may feel a denial of her heritage. For example, a person hailing from the Caribbean with a darker skin tone and a person whose family is from Africa could both fall under this category, thereby affirming neither of their backgrounds. On the other hand, some may prefer the term. The best strategy here is to politely and respectfully ask.
As a White person, my culture tells me that this term is most closely linked to accusations of attempts at “political correctness.” As stated above, this may be an appropriate term for a person whose heritage is traced to other parts of the world. The assumption behind these words is that every person with darker skin comes from Africa. I imagine (but, being White, cannot know) that this would be similar to calling all Asian people Chinese…For those who embrace an African American identity, this term is obviously appropriate. I will try to avoid it, however, as a blanket generalization.
Person of Color
As far as blanket terms go, I feel that person/people of color is an appropriate term. When discussing subordinate/dominant groups, I feel that ‘people of color’ allows a writer to include all those with a darker skin tone without making any assumptions about that group. Further, by affirming a persons humanity before assigning them a label, the term ‘person of color’ acknowledges the reality that we are discussing human beings who are more than the label we seek to assign them.
In my recent reading, this term was rejected for reasons I agree with. It has a negative connotation, implying that somehow to be ‘non-whatever’ is to be missing or lacking something. Do we call women non-male? No. While it seems to capture people who do not have a light skin tone without making assumptions, it seems that it is polemical to ‘person of color’. In other words, female is to non-male as person of color is to non-white.
If you have read my short essay The United States Created Race, then you will understand the long battle we as a country have fought when it comes to defining who is White. And perhaps it was not about defining who was White as much as it was about defining who was not White. Either way, for purposes of this discussion, White will be regarded as the identification of a lighter skin tone as well as membership in the dominant race group in U.S. race culture. For more on dominant and subordinate groups, see What is White Privilege?
I do not mean this to be an exhaustive list and I apologize for those who I’ve left out. My blog is, once again, becoming too long. I need to cut myself off before this becomes a paper.
Thanks for reading. Comments and criticism encouraged.