Is my language racist? Is yours?
Many among my Madison-area friends have asked how the transition to living in a small town has gone for Kevin and I since our semi-retirement move to central Illinois. I always answer enthusiastically about our new home and the assortment of wild birds living in our gardens, and I’ve waxed poetic about the pleasures of being near my childhood family. What I don’t glorify is the constant use of the word “colored” here in the Bible Belt, and how that sets my teeth on edge. I’ve lived in large cities (Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Madison) almost my entire adult life, and I mistakenly thought that word was eradicated about the time the Vietnam War ended. Not so.
The folks I’ve met seem to be well meaning, intelligent, hardworking folks, like most in rural township areas who live around agricultural or manufacturing centers. I can’t imagine they harbor a hidden malice toward “coloreds.” However, there does seem to be a clear delineation between “them” and “us” because the word is casually used as a descriptor for anyone of African-American descent.
My grandson Patrick, 12, recently stayed a few days for a visit from Chicago, and during a family lunch conversation, after listening to my uncle’s tales of military experiences during the Vietnam War — many of which featured “colored” people — Patrick asked my elderly uncle if he was a man who believed in segregation. “Yes,” answered my uncle, which even took me aback, until he added, “I don’t have any problem living next door to them or working with them. They are people, just like you and me. I was proud to serve alongside them in the military, Patrick.”
I saw Patrick’s eyes squint, a tiny frown forming on his face, and I quickly caught his attention and shook my head slightly, signaling him to let it go — we’d talk about it later. And so later that day, I explained to Patrick that his great uncle didn’t live in the states during segregation, nor did he study it, and he isn’t familiar with the meaning of the word. However, he’s always lived in an integrated world and he doesn’t mean the word “colored” to be anything but a descriptor, since he enjoys painting a picture with words and being sure you can imagine the scenes he is describing. “His choice of words is unfortunate, but he means what you’d mean if you described a friend as being ‘black’,” I added.
“But I wouldn’t do that,” Patrick said pointedly, “unless you asked me to describe the friend. I don’t tell you that my white friend Max has black hair or that Sarah has blond hair and is short. I just talk about Max and Sarah. Adults are the only people who talk about skin color, and they only do it when somebody has a different skin color than they do. Grownups do it all the time. It isn’t descriptive, it’s racist. It’s pointing out a difference when the only description mentioned is skin color.”
Wow. Patrick’s comments caused me to rethink my own conversations. Do I describe someone as “Hispanic” or “black” when talking to a third party about an interaction with them? And do black people point out if someone is white in their conversations with other black people? But Patrick’s right — I wouldn’t describe Phyllis as tall or blond, which she is, nor would I say Tom has dark hair. Instead, I’d say how accomplished Phyllis is, how intelligent. I’d probably mention how Tom leans politically to the left in a refreshing manner, and add that he’s an interesting person to me. Both are white like me. Would I preface those same remarks, if talking about Jorge, with the comment that he’s Hispanic?
My grandkids comprise a tiny United Nations. One has a parent of Cuban black lineage and another has a Filipino parent. Patrick’s father moved to the U.S. from his native Ireland. I would never think to mention that wee Alex is Filipino-American; he’s just Alexander to me. He’s one of us. However, I have often mentioned in conversation that his father is Filipino and is a former Navy Seal and a Chicago cop. Is the first descriptor a racist one, and the second two just facts?
I’m not going to pretend that my uncle doesn’t see “different” when he sees skin color; yes, he brings the lessons learned in his white 1930s childhood with him into his adulthood. I’m not going to pretend that I also wasn’t raised in a home, during the 1950s, with a point of view that “some people” are naturally “different” as a class of people. However, I have since been educated differently, by experience and exposure, and so taught my children that everyone falls somewhere on the human pigment spectrum, but we’re all people, with our unique strengths and weaknesses. Now their children are teaching me how empty those words really are, if I, too, still feel the need to call the attention to the pigment wheel — regardless of the political correctness of the chosen word to describe another person.
I really am going to take Patrick’s comments to heart and try to consciously remove such language from my conversations; there is no reason for voluntary descriptors at all beyond a mention of accomplishments or the content of another’s character — the most level playing field of all.
The world is a better place, I think, though the eyes of this child.
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