Tuesday, August 24


I just completed a survey necessary to fulfill some Equal Opportunity Act requirements, and I have to be honest that the race section gave me some pause. It allowed one to check all that apply. Yes, I'm white. Really white. German-Irish ancestry and all that. Can't tan for the life of me, and sunburns don't even leave me red for a few days anymore. My skin just kind of absorbs it in a headlong rush to return to its previously established pearl brilliance.

Give me a moment, though. Consider the term "African American." I found myself sore tempted to mark that box on the survey. I have spent more time in Africa than most so-called "African Americans." I have the card to prove that Kenya accepts me. By the same token, those with slave ancestry are a fair share more American than I am. My dad lives here on a green card, and my mom can trace her earliest American ancestors only back to around the Civil War. Not that I did mark the box. I really need a job, and this one is my favorite. I'm not going to chance it quibbling over a stupid point like this.

More generally, though, "African American" used as a replacement for "black" really is stupid. It makes possible a lot of errors avoided by just saying "black." Most Haitians, Dominicans and Jamaicans are "black" but not "African American." Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba and Kele Okereke aren't "African American." They're "Afro-Brit" or some variant if the other side of the pond even bothers. Emigrant Afrikaners, Egyptians and Moroccans, hewing close to the definition, would be "African American," but no one is going to call them that.

My problem is with universality. If "African American" goes the way of "negro" and "black" takes the sole position, what of the other races? Would it not follow that colors should be used to identify all of them? Are we really going to start calling Asians "yellows" and American Indians "reds?" To the best of my understanding, there was a time when these were the preferred names, and they were perjorative.

In that case it may be best to select new colors with no past associations. I would like to nominate either "siennas" or "umbers" for American Indians. Those from the Indian sub-continent can be "auburns," and Latinos can be "coppers." Italians and Greeks can remain "olive." My ilk and I can be "tea roses."

Of course, all of this assumes that language acts in a coherent and logical manner. Which it totally doesn't.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

Of course language doesn't work in a logical manner; neither does historical perception. Southern Europeans and Irish used to be considered 'not white,' and as you say in terms of color we Irish are about as pasty as you can get. But those groups used to be universally impoverished, used to live in terrible conditions, and the logic of the time was that those were results of their race.
There is no biological category for race; it's completely social.