The Gray Area: The Things We Say and the Things We Mean

Gray WhitsettColumnist

We live in an age in which the politically correct is all the rage. Every name has four others, each less offensive than the last, and pundits, academics, intellectuals, and sensitive mothers bicker and quarrel over which is best, which is worst, and which is downright ugly. It seems that every few years a particularly controversial topic becomes the battleground of yet another label war, in which typically the new prescription wins and in is ushered a new era of supreme appropriateness.

The societal process of determining what is most accurate, what is most indicative, and what is most respectful is an important one. Shakespeare proposed the question: “What’s in a name?” The answer: a lot. When we are assigning an appellation to a group of people a certain disorder or a school of thought, what we are attempting to do is encapsulate the essence of that subject in a mere few syllables. This is difficult, some might say impossible, and it is important, incredibly so. I don’t argue that for a minute..

So, what’s my point? Initially it is to demonstrate that I fully understand the significance of being politically correct, as it is often simply a better term. To me the phrase politically correct is the politically correct term for being a decent human being, for taking the time to reason through what we call people, places, and things. It’s the ethical strategy for describing and making distinctions in a heterogeneous society.

There are a variety of politically correct concepts for which I have absolutely no patience or deference. I could ramble on about these for quite some time, but I want to hone in on one as a representative of my larger issue. My itch lies with the term African-American.

I hate this label. I truly do. And I think it’s a perfect example of when being politically correct becomes condescension and inaccuracy.

First, let’s establish what we mean when we say African-American. We mean black. We don’t really know from where they are or if they’re even American necessarily, we just know they’re black, and that we shouldn’t call them black.

We certainly don’t know if they were originally from Africa and we have no idea how long they’ve been in this country, whether they immigrated themselves or are generationally equivalent to the first European settlers. We really don’t know much of anything about a random African-American’s history or life, and yet we instantly assert their national origins and current living situation. This is unacceptable.

What, exactly, do we then call a black woman from France? A French AfricanAmerican? If African-American has become synonymous with black, then, following such a formula, that must be the title. Or do we call her an African French? Timbre aside, this seems to make more sense. Therefore, when we are saying African-American we’re really just saying a black American. African means black. African French means a black French citizen. It appears this boils down to something relatively sensible.

But does it? What do we do with Africans who aren’t actually black? Many South African citizens are white, but they surely must be called African. Clearly, there is a distinction to be made between when African means race and when African means national origin.

This isn’t a fresh discovery. But, when do we know to draw this line? When we just have a general feeling? It seems something this important should be made clear and obvious, not left to individual discernment. African then is just too broad. After all, Africa is an entire continent, from Egypt to Cape Horn.

The idea of Canadians and Americans being aptly described by North American is as erroneous as European representing the Polish or Swiss. We need then to adopt a country-based understanding, Ethiopian being distinct from Libyan. But now we’re back at the same problem we started with – simply calling everyone that lives in the United States “American” leaves thousands of variables unaccounted.

The solution to this is plain, at least to me. Call them black. If someone is black and lives in America and have adopted the culture of that country, call them black Americans. If someone lives in Nepal and is black, then they’re a black Nepali.

The term black is not an insult or a negative adjective. It’s just a fact. We can avoid the truth, but this reality evasion simply results in a complex, discombobulated smack in the face. So obsessed are we with not hurting the black community’s feelings that we strip them of a dignified label.

The white community (where this issue seems to matter most) tiptoes around these issues because they are indeed a powder keg. But there’s no reason for this. Again, the term black is not an insult. Those who use it as such are certainly foolish, but don’t validate their behavior by acquiescing to their pejorative usage.

We’ve done the same thing the terms gay and retarded. We’ve lent the ignorant victory. We’ve conceded that their negative connotations are in fact truth, that they’re perceptions are reality. This is irresponsible, and flat out wrong. I refuse to grant the thoughtless a megaphone. And I don’t want you to either.

Using relevant and kind wordings is a positive, and necessary, practice. Understanding difference is critical in the modern era, and being respectful of this difference is all-important, as tensions too often run high. But we must remember that, above all, when we are interpreting the elements of humanity a clear, concise, and contemplative approach is key. Never become so concerned with dodging controversy that you fall into generalities and vague explanations, as there is more value in being correct than being politically correct.


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