This is not as polished of a piece as I would like, but that’s because it’s not an argument or a research paper; this is a collection of thoughts and unanswered questions. Feel free to leave your thoughts, answers and musings at the bottom as well. As always, this is a safe place, and I won’t tolerate bad citizenship.
We are really weird about race, and often in our own special way. We’re some of the only people on earth who think darker skin is more desirable. Unless, of course, it gets too dark. In my travels I’ve really enjoyed seeing how other cultures deal with the legacy of the slave trade. Many are far more frank, using highly-descriptive adjectives quite bluntly.
What about Arabs? The stereotype is a dark-skinned man with a big nose, mustache or beard and a turban. Yet, on the US Census they are counted as white. Nevermind that they lobbied for that classification, because at the time the options were white or black, and nobody was hoping to be treated the way blacks in America were being treated at the time. Also, my favorite tidbit: being anti-semitic doesn’t specifically mean anti-Jew: Arabs are semites as well.
What about light-skinned Lebanese? Standing next to some tan neighbors across the Mediterranean like Italians or Greeks, they look downright pasty. But they’re Arab. So does that automatically make them brown?
I think we need to come to terms with the fact that we don’t just come in white and black, and that maybe adjectives are just a physical description, not an ethnic, political or social distinction. Why can’t we just use descriptors like olive, chocolate, porcelain and light brown?
What about someone who, like the fictional Bobby of Jack and Bobby, was raised white (whatever that means) looks white, but unbeknown to him, is actually Mexican? There’s a great episode describing a pivotal point is his career, wherein someone asks why he’s never identified as latino. Not that he should necessarily avoid it, but in that scenario, why would he?
I’ve been told (or just read the faces) that it’s surprising I use words like “black” and “brown” to describe people. People think it’s insulting, and that I’m sensitive to issues of race and prejudice, so how could I be so cruel as to say the guy who came in to see you during lunch was tall, black and wearing a red shirt? I find this sort of national racial/emotional baggage really interesting. It is clearly remnants of horrible mistreatment before, during and after the slave trade, but so many other countries handle it differently. If someone ever told me they were offended by being referred to as a black person (or white or brown or olive or whatever) I would do my best not to say it around them. But I see it as an adjective. I don’t like saying African-American. It assumes two things that aren’t necessarily true: 1) that you and your family are from Africa, and 2) that you are an American. It also leaves the speaker ill-equipped to describe those who don’t fit the bill, like Haitian-Americans or Nelson Mandela. And yes, I have heard numerous people refer to him as African-American.
I think we lack adequate vocabulary for our country’s racial missteps and realities. There’s a whole lot of nuance and fear keeping us back.
I’m also intrigued by the anecdote about the origins of the term African-American, which I have written about previously. It was meant to be derogatory, as in Africans who are just sort of here in America, and need to go back. What a gross, post-bellum term.
I think a lot of the time, we’re just trying to do right by each other and we get a bit bogged down in watching for the land mines. You can always tell when a white person is describing a black one, because they hesitate a lot. The most obvious descriptor of a person is their largest organ, along with height, hair color, and any scars, tattoos, piercings or bodily anomalies. Of course, we never describe white people as white, unless they’re interacting with non-whites, or doing something that is not stereotypically white. How weird is that?
Even the title of this post focuses on being white, and, “poor use how do we keep from looking dumb and racist?” Does the title accurately describe the writing that follows? If not, why on earth did it immediately come to mind?