Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Political Corectness and Innacurate Terminology

I know that ripping on politically correct (or PC) speech is old news, but I think it needs another punch in the gut.

Like everyone else, I've heard comedians and everyone else making fun of PC-speak. It was really cool in the mid-90's to make fun of it. But the first time I realized something was incredibly wrong with PC-speak was in the 8th grade. I was reading my social studies book, and it was discussing the situation of black people in Africa. It referred to these black people, who lived in Africa, and had most likely never even been to America, as African Americans.

And this is an African American lion, of course. Or, perhaps more PC, an African large cat. It occurred to me then, and it has bothered me until this day, that the term "African American" is an inaccurate term. It only adequately describes a certain group of black people who live in America, but usually it's used in situations in which their citizenship is not really at issue. It neglects to recognize that some people of African descent are not really black, and that some black people aren't of African descent. It also seems to belittle any black people who aren't also Americans.

I believe that words should say what they mean. And if our society wants to put more emphasis on politeness than on accuracy then I think I'm going to go live in the woods somewhere, with raccoons.

I'm sorry. Nocturnal scavenging animals with cute ringed tails. Huh. After I uploaded this I realized that there's kind of an antiquated racist epithet lurking in there, but I think I'm going to leave the cute picture anyway.

The situation with blacks, at least, has a solution. Call them black. Call us white, too, by the way. These are both accurate terms (not in the sense that the color is accurate, but that there is at least a shared meaning to the words in this context) that aren't offensive. "Negro" would be okay, I suppose, but only if you're wearing pantaloons and a white wig. And of course, the problem with that is it sounds too much like something else.

The problem is worse, however, when you talk about Hispanics or Asians. These are both horribly inaccurate or over-inclusive terms, but they seem to be the best ones I can come up with. First, the term "Hispanic." It's a terribly over-inclusive term because it includes all people of Spanish-speaking descent. This is no good because most people in Spain are included, but they're largely white, and it also includes many black people. It's also terribly under-iclusive because it excludes people of Portuguese-speaking descent (e.g. from Brazil). "Mestizo" would, I suppose, be an adequate term to use, but I don't think most people know what it means. "Latin" would not be a good term to use because it means pretty much the same thing as "Hispanic," but is even more inclusive.

I've heard that even the term "Hispanic" is offensive to some people. You're supposed to refer to them by their actual national ancestry, such as "Mexican," or "Cuban," or "Argentinian," and so forth. This is all fine and dandy, but only if you actually know the origins of the particular person of whom you're speaking or if speaking about a particular nationality is adequate. What if you wanted to talk about the position of all people of these groups in America? It would be insane to, every time you need the words, say "Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans," and so on and so forth until you've named every possible ethnicity of the people of whom you're speaking.

But we don't have an adequate term for the group as a whole. The same goes for "Asians." You of course have the same nationality-specific suggestion for this group, but I for one can't tell whether someone is Japanese or Korean simply by looking at them, and you might again want to talk about the situation of the group as a whole. "Asian" is a bad term because it also includes people in India, the Middle East, and large parts of Russia where other racial groups live.

As I understand it, the term "Oriental" is offensive. As far as I can tell, it's an accurate term. The offensiveness of it hasn't been adequately explained to me, but I've heard that "Oriental is a rug." Well, ok. I suppose another problem with it is that as little as 200 years ago "Oriental" also referred to the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. "Mongoloid," though accurate, really doesn't sound good, and also has some mental retardation connotations as I understand.

And I'm not even going to get into the American Indian thing. That's just as confusing.

So anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that we need to have accurate terms to use to talk about things. The terms currently in vogue, while maybe not hurting anyone's feelings, are hampering out ability to speak clearly about issues. I say, get rid of them. Give the races a letter designation, like A, B, C, and so forth. I don't care. Just come up with a way that we can actually talk about things.


  1. Why do we call them American Indians and not Indian Americans?

    As far as how to refer to our fellow citizens whose skin is dark and whose ancestors came from Africa, I never know which term is correct to use. I feel more comfortable using the term Blacks because it is short and simple, I guess. African Americans is a mouthful. On the other hand, African Americans sounds dignified. What DO they want to be called?

  2. Geez, Kelly, I'm not sure whether to laugh or be outraged ;)

    The hampering you mention, I would posit, isn't a result of labels, but a result of lack of understanding of the issues that surround racial identity. In my experience, it can be difficult for members of the dominant gender and race to fully understand those issues without expending some effort in that direction. If one educates one's self on those, then I do believe the labels won't get in the way, certainly not to the extent that you would want to post on the issue.

    There is a difference, btw, between being sensitive and being PC. You seem to be interested in neither in your post, but no doubt you appreciate the distinction. There are ways to be accurate and sensitive at the same time, but if you don't know what it is that you ought to be sensitive about, it's hard to hit the nail on the head, if you see what I mean.

    Sorry if I'm offending you -- I bear no ill will -- but I found the post to be unusually ignorant and quite frankly, offensively so.

    Am I missing the proverbial boat here?

  3. I guess I'm a cracker.

    I'm not sure if you missed the boat or not, TG. Maybe I did. If I'm insensitive racially, I certainly don't intend to be. But the only way to be corrected is to say what you're thinking. Only then can someone tell you that you're wrong. And it seems you have, so thank you.

    I do appreciate the distinction between PC and sensitive. That's why I think "negro" is probably a bad term because it harkens to a time when discrimination and slavery were A-OK in most people's books. That's also why I accept it when a group doesn't want to be called by a certain term (e.g. "Oriental"). But at the same time, I think accurate terminology is important. If white people in America, for instance, all wanted to be called "English Americans" then this would be a terribly inaccurate and therefore ineffective term to use.

    I also wonder if the inaccurate terminology of PC is intentional. That is, if we don't have any accurate terms to use to speak about race, then we won't speak or think about race at all and the problems will simply go away on their own. I'm not sure if that's the best route to go, though.

  4. TG: I seriously doubt he meant to be insensitive, but it's nearly impossible to be inoffensive when arguing against PC terms. Yes, there is a difference between sensitivity and political correctness, and I don't think he's arguing against sensitivity. Sensitivity is fine. If it makes people feel better to be called something, then that's great. The problem is, people take it too far, to the point where it's just silly and inaccurate. And THAT is what I think Kelly is talking about in this post. When PC gets to the point where it is today, problems occur. A couple of examples follow:

    I knew an American girl who was living in Australia for a semester, and I was there for a conversation she had with an Aboriginal Australian, in which she kept referring to him as an "African American." I almost slapped the bitch (oops, was that sexist?).

    While I'm sure she meant well, Aboriginals have lived in Australia for thousands of years. To refer to them as "African" or "American" is not only silly and inaccurate, but diminishes their own culture.

    Political correctness was just so drilled into her head that she equated the two words, and it took her a long time to adjust. I would bet that quite a few people who are not familiar with Aboriginals do this.

    Another story that comes to mind is one of a kid who won a scholarship (I think it was in Omaha, but it might have been Lincoln) for African Americans.

    He was actually a native of Africa, who came to America. His family had lived in Africa for many generations. By anyone's definition he was an African American. So he assumed that he should be allowed to apply for this scholarship.

    Aparently not having ever met the student, the people decided to give him the award. The problem, though, was that he had white skin. Obviously there was a large public uproar about how he shouldn't get it.

    Wasn't this student more of an African American than 99% of people who call themselves that?

    I'm not sure how it ended, but it's irrelevant to my point. PC words obviously harmed someone in this case. If he got to keep the scholarship, it was harmful because an underpriveledged Black American (who the award was obviously intended for) lost out on the award due to the lack of accuracy of PC terms. If he didn't get to keep it, it was discriminating against an aparently very deserving actual African American on the basis of his skin colour.

    We've made "African American" a synonym for "black," and that is not only inaccurate, but in situations like the ones I've mentioned, it can be offensive, or even harmful.

    However, Kelly, PC words are not the only ones that are inaccurate. The word "American" itself comes to mind. But it's a lot easier to say than "Citizen of the United States of America."

    I wanted to comment on the other terms, but I think I've gone on long enough. The only way to solve the issue of not hurting anyone's feelings by calling them something is to stop labelling people based on their skin colour or descent. And that's not going to happen anytime soon.

  5. Holy crap, I didn't say you were an ignorant racist, and I don't believe you to be one.

    Part of my point is that when coming up with nomenclature that is sensitive, perhaps it would be wise to actually ask those who you are seeking to label what they think and why they think it. Their subjective experience of what it is to be their race and what it is like for you to be yours may very well differ from your subjective experience of yours and what you believe it is like to be theirs. Hence, a label that you in good faith choose that you feel is eminently accurate may turn out be insulting from their perspective.

    I've said it on my blog before: the vast majority of people are well intentioned and intelligent. It is our diversity of subjective experiences that cause us to reach different conclusions when looking at the same set of facts. It doesn't mean that others are ignorant, it just means that others have reached different conclusions based on their personal experiences.

    I don't seek (like some) to homogenize experiences so that we all agree, but I do seek debate and dialoge so that we can see where those we disagree with are coming from and gain a better understanding of ourselves and others.

    Which is why I don't think you're ignorant -- you just have a different opinion on the subject, Kelly, the legitimacy of which I do not challenge, but which I do disagree with from time to time.

    (And, btw, which is why I think your blog rocks)

  6. And khorbin, excellent examples, very apropos.

  7. Okay, so I'm a little bit late on getting into the fray here. Blame various finals and papers for that one, folks.

    I think this little discussion pretty much illustrates Kelly's point in a round about sort of way. Political correctness, in my mind, isn't "sensitive" speech so much as it is speech that alleviates white guilt. The problem with political correctness is that it generally originates with the dominant culture and, while it gives us the impression of being "sensitive" to the feelings of its target, doesn't actually alleviate anything. Take the term "Native American," for instance. My own personal and very unscientific research into the matter has consistently found that those whom we may correctly refer to as this country's indigenous peoples really aren't down with the name "Native American" -- not necessarily because it's not descriptive of their origins, but because it's the newest in a string of names given to them by the white man. Although the term "indian" was coined in much the same way, for whatever reason, they prefer it. And so that's the term I use. Indians. The only people who ever give me shit about it are white folks...

    You're right, TG, there's alot to racial identity that the majority don't pick up on. I had a class this semester about gender, race and class (socioeconomic status) and at the beginning of the semester, our professor asked us to take out a piece of paper and write down three words that we felt described us. Almost across the board, the minority students listed their ethnicity first. and really, I don't think it has to do with how they define themselves so much as it is how society has told them they must see themselves.

    And TG, how can you choose a term to describe people when that particular population can't agree amongst themselves half the time? Again, I use Indians as an example -- a significant proportion of them are offended by the use of Indian mascots such as Redskins and the like. Equal numbers of them apparently take pride in showing off their Redskins jerseys. So who gets to decide what we call them?

    I don't think you can solve the problem by merely asking people what they want to be called; that's like taking an aspirin because you have a compound fracture. The words we use to describe one another are inevitable and necessary, because that's the way the human brain works. We categorize to make sense of the thousands and thousands of pieces of information we're bombarded with every minute. It's also necessary from a scientific perspective. Sociologists would have alot more work to do if they couldn't note patterns in culture and what have you.

    As to Kelly's bit about "hispanic," I have two comments:

    1) we had a classroom discussion about why we capitalize "Hispanic" but not "black" or "white." It just...makes sense, and I couldn't think of a particular reason at the time.. But in light of this conversation, it seems that we capitalize the term because it refers to a specific population with particular geographic similarities, while "black" and "white" refer solely to skin-color..

    2) Although "Hispanic" does refer to people of Spanish-speaking descent, I think it would actually include Brazilians because they're part of the whole Latin America bit.. And, in case no one else had noticed, inevitably when you go to fill out one of those forms that asks you your race, they usually have "white, not Hispanic" as an option...

  8. Oh, yeah...I'd like to point out that no one got this upset about my post about dwarfs.