Sunday, April 07, 2013

Black-and-White Is Divisive Descriptor for U.S. Rich Diversity

I am tired of being a white person. More accurately, I am tired of the divisive language of black-and-white to describe race and ethnicity.

The term people of color is the preferred choice among many academics, but it hasn't spread much beyond those boundaries.

And it still leaves out me. As Barbara Jordan so brilliantly said at the Watergate hearings of Richard Nixon’s Constitutional violations as she quoted the Preamble to the U.S Constitution:

"'We, the people.' I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake."

Surely it is a mistake that I am divided by language from people of color. I am not white, after all. White is the absence of color. I may be pale or even pasty, but I am not white.

And I have never met a black and person. No matter how deeply pigmented the skin, it is not black, the result of all colors.

The introduction of black to signify race was a verbal innovation in the late 1960s-early 1970s when it gained traction.

It was a dignified counterpoint to the widespread use of white to denote Caucasian. The slogan, Black is Beautiful, expressed a desire to claim black as a state of being completely unique unto itself and with its unique standards for measuring beauty and other values.

It was a good thing.

We are now a half-century past that innovation. Yet the language of black-and-white, a language of division and exclusion, clings like skin to all our conversations about race and ethnicity and social justice. It provides the container and the limitation.

I became aware of how irritated I am with this language as I was listening to a completely mundane report about gun violence on National Public Radio.

Women of all races die of gun violence less often than men. Men, mostly living in rural communities in states such as Wyoming and Alaska, die of suicide. A Wyoming health official said just about everyone knows a suicide there, but they would run him out of town if he suggested a gun control law.

Men in urban environments die of homicide.

I deliberately left out the terms in which the story was told: white rural men and black urban men.

Does the report lose anything by leaving out the racial marker? I don’t think so. Most of us surmise that the rural communities are white. And who is to say that men of color living in such rural communities are also at increased risk of suicide by gun – a detail the report did not cover.

Most of us who have been paying attention know that homicide has been claiming lives of young men of color for decades in an epidemic of violence.

I discussed my irritation with my students, as I was teaching an older group ready for mature discussion. It was they who suggested that the story could be told without racial markers using references to geography.

One student pointed out that the trouble with white-black language is that it implies there is nothing in common -- almost two different species instead of all human beings with a great deal in common.

The matter is black-and-white, we say to indicate that it should be easy to see the polarized issue.

"Black is black, and white is white," we say to enforce a view of right-wrong, coding black as wrong.

Another student pointed out that there are times when race matters, such health issues. African-Americans want to know that they are greater risk for a disease such as sickle cell anemia and about new discoveries for treatment.

These legitimate reasons for using racial description make sense, too.

In our discussion, students said they don't like the use of black-and-white "but you learn to accept it."

For my students, coming from so many other cultures and histories, the innovative impact of using black to describe race is lost. American history is not their history.

My students come from Haiti and Caribbean Islands. I have students from all over Central and South America, too. I also have students from Russia and Poland and Romania and other places around the globe.

They are attending a career college so that they can better their families through careers in health, law, and criminal justice. They are the latest generation of immigrants or even native-born children of lower-income families pursuing the American dream of self-betterment through education.

But most of my students are people of color, and when I walk into a classroom, I am the minority.

Perhaps I feel as racial minorities have long felt in our country -- separate from and different than. I don't like it, and I don't want to be white in world that offers only the descriptive choices of black-and-white and me-or-person-of-color.

So I have been thinking about how I want language to change, knowing that my tiny voice means less than nothing.

Let's describe people as beige and brown. These are in the same color family, just as we all are part of the family of humanity. Some of us have more pigment, some of us have less. We are simply different shades of color, not different, separate, and opposing species.

As far as diseases with genetic risk factors, let us use the language of genetics. When we speak of Tay-Sachs syndrome, for which people with Jewish background are at risk, language does not separate out the group as racially different and apart.

As more and more inter-marriages occur, like that which produced our President, the black-and-white descriptor is increasingly inaccurate.

Genetic background will impact disease risk factors, but color should not be invoked. We have the advanced medical technology to identify these diseases; why cannot language become advanced enough to describe this world?

I don't want to be white anymore. I don't want to be that colorless carbon-based life form devoid of all hue and tint. I don'’t want to be separated from all people of color by polarizing language. I want the rich resources of English to change to encompass the unity of all that we humans are and can be.

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