Friday, January 08, 2010

Dated Language

Question 9 on the census, which asks for a person's race, lists as one of the options: "Black, African Am., or Negro." [from csbnews]
This has raised a few hackles, and I have to admit that I am also a bit surprised at the use of such an archaic and thoroughly fraught term as "negro" as an option on the census in 2010. I don't think that's been in current use since when, the 70s? It's not a word that I would use, nor have I heard it except in movies about the Civil Rights movement -- how could it possibly be considered a common-enough descriptor now?

I don't think it's patently offensive, I guess, not like some of the other terms that have been used to describe someone who isn't pasty-white-northern-european, but it smacks of a patronizing, denigrating "you, boy" sort of label. The word has been rejected, I believe, and no one seems to be wanting to resurrect it as a sort of "self-owned" reference to one's own group, like the n-word has been adopted by some groups, or faggot has been reclaimed as a label of pride by some gays.

Since I don't belong to either of those groups, the words are not acceptable.

The Census Bureau has defended the choice of words (Black, African Am., Negro appear as the label for a single checkbox) by saying that "some older people" might still identify with the term". Really? I'd like to meet them. Do they still accept the label "colored"? I doubt it. The Census Bureau added it back in this year, after it was a write-in option from some people during the last census. While I believe that to be entirely true, I have to wonder at the motive for doing so. Do people not like the other terms? Do they imply some other affiliation that some people don't like?

But then again, I have a hard time getting behind the xxx-American terminology. African-American, Asian-American, or any of the combinations, which seem to be a rather thinly veiled attempt to put a politically correct, socially acceptable label on something that is really a color-based or phyiscal-attribute-based determiner. You aren't calling someone African-American because the emigrated from Africa, you are using the term to describe someone by skin color. It is just 'black' with a polite, social dress on. You don't hear Polish-American as a descriptor for North St. Paul white people, because no one feels the need to differentiate by actual ethnicity, and the Polish people and Scandinavians and such in the city are all white. xxx-American isn't a way to describe where you're from, it's a side-step to actually describing your skin color or physical features without actually doing so.

People should be called by whatever label they want--if there really is a subset of people who prefer the terminology Negro, then so be it. People want to be called Caucasian instead of White, or Hispanic or Latino instead of Mexican. So what? It's a ridiculous attempt at labeling anyway. The bizarre thing is that the 'race' being asked for is an mix of terms that use both skin color and ethnic origin to define it - things that are fundamentally unrelated. Describing someone's skin color doesn't say a thing about their actual origin, it just lets bureaucrats lump us into different buckets rather arbitrarily.

I'm mostly Polish, and a little bit English and a teensy bit German, I think. I'm sure there's another 57 Varieties muddled in there somewhere. On a census form, I'm White. It's just one way of grouping people. Perhaps I should be labelled 'northern european', to distinguish from the Scandinavians or ethnic Caucasians from Russia, or paler-skinned peoples of the Mediterranean It's a fruitless effort, especially now, as we are becoming more and more homogenized. I'm not white, anyway, I'm sort of pale-bluish.

But, the inclusion of the term Negro on the census strikes me as odd. Language changes, and we discard or re-define words that have taken on meanings that are unsubtle and unacceptable, just like we add descriptors that people adopt. The issue is that words that are common and acceptable to one set of people (even within a group) may be offensive or rejected by others.

Shelly Lowe, a U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson, agrees that the use of "Negro" is antiquated, and says that the bureau was surprised to learn there still are people who prefer to be called by the term.

Lowe also noted that all of the census questions are "tested ad nauseam," enough so that using the "Negro" term "outweighed the potential negatives."
Was it a huge error to include the term? I think it's rather insensitive, and seems terribly out of touch with the modern world, but I also am willing to take at face value that some people do prefer the term and that its inclusion was not meant to imply anything other than an alternate label. Everything is going to offend someone. I'll be curious if it remains on the census again in 10 years.

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