In light of the recent Trump victory in the US presidential elections (and the alleged spike in racist crimes and incidents since), I think now is a good time to put in my two cents regarding this; a pair of cents I’ve been holding on to for some time. I have an assignment to finish, as well as a JNV broadcast (check us out: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) to finish editing, so today’s post won’t be long.
I don’t live in the US, of course, so my exposure to the the American language of race has been largely through television and the internet. Yet, for the longest while, I have disliked the way race was referred to in America. I realised as a young man was that, while there were Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, etc, there was no corresponding way to refer to white people in America; it’s as if they were just “Americans” (or “white Americans”), the default, the only true Americans. Shouldn’t white Americans be called European-Americans, then?
Speaking of default, I’ve also disliked the term “people of colour” (or “color” to those in the US). It makes it sound as if white people were the “colourless” people, the natural state of humanity, or at least American humanity; and every other ethnicity were a painted version, deviants from the default colourless state. It reminds me of “What Made the Red Man Red” from Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan. In it, the “red” people, the “Indians” (“Injuns”) tell a story in which they apparently were white before “the very first Indian prince” kissed a maid, and they “all been blushin’ since.”
From a genetic perspective, race does not exist. That does not mean it is not important as a social construct, but that’s just what it is: a social construct. As such, it’s not surprising that language would reflect that social reality. But I think that this kind of language is a negative, and divisive: you’re either white or coloured (black, brown, etc). I believe society should work towards spreading the idea that humanity exists on a spectrum of “colours”, of which white is not the default, but one of many hues.
And language is a (the?) tool that can help spread that truth.