Write or Rong Words

While at the columnist’s conference in our nation’s capital earlier this past summer, one of the workshops was about writing sensitively about race and culture. The panelists were four very experienced and knowledgeable writers, all African American.

They provided some good insights into some of the unintended messages writers might send by not being aware of, or sensitive to hot-button words and phrases. It was a good panel, and much of what was shared made sense to me. Surely, communicating ideas in a respectful manner can only improve how we perceive each other.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the topic of sensitive language, and wondering if it’s possible to be sensitive and sensible. I recalled the brouhaha that occurred when a legislator used the word “niggardly,” which means being a cheapskate, and has nothing to do with the “N word.” He was forced to apologize, not for what the word meant, but for what people with limited vocabulary thought it meant. Would I have chosen that word? Probably not. But, it is a good word.

Color seems to be a minefield. In South Africa, before their democratization, people were considered to be “white” or “non-white.” I’m not sure how that worked for people who were mostly Caucasian, or people from Asia, but it applied both to how people were described and what rights and freedoms they had.

In our country we have had the most trouble coming to a consensus on how we refer to people whose forebears were removed from Africa and brought here against their will. “Negro” was once an appropriate term. Now it is not. “Afro-American” was in vogue in the ‘60s but the longer version, “African American,” is more typical today. “Black” is still okay, I think. “Colored people” was once fine, but not now, though “people of color” is the favored term, though it brings in other minority groups as well. So, the words “people” and “colored” can go from not okay to okay by re-ordering the words and adding “of.”

Actually, the NAACP has the word “colored” in their name. I guess they had a lot of letterhead printed, and didn’t want to change it. Same for the United Negro College Fund.

South of our border, there are a lot of people – many of whom have crossed the border by now – and we tend to group them by the fact that they speak Spanish. They are mostly not of Spanish descent, but we call them “Hispanic.” People from Chile and Guatemala have little in common with people from Mexico or Puerto Rico, other than language, but we call them all “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

When we get into the delicate topic of how Hispanic immigrants get here, it is considered insensitive to call people who crossed the border illegally “illegal.” “Undocumented” is preferred. To me, “undocumented” means that I lost my driver’s license, not that I entered a country without permission, but that’s just me.

The term “Orientals” is very passé, with “Asians” being the new correct name. Asia is huge, though, including people in India all the way to China and beyond. Then there are “Pacific Islanders” who populate the Philippines, Hawaii, etc.

And, we have “Native Americans” now where we once had “Indians.” I’m fine with either name. And, to be honest, I’m fine with all of the names above. I don’t think it is right to focus on someone’s ethnicity or culture, but there are times when it is useful to have group names to identify people. Intermarriage may ultimately make all this a moot point, or at least complicate it. I’ve heard people use the term “ethnically ambiguous” applied to fashion models of mixed race. Maybe that will become the dominant category someday.

If you get right down to it, some people like to be insulting, some people are, perhaps, overly-sensitive about being insulted, and some people are under-sensitive about the words they choose. I guess the best strategy is to try to be sensitive, and to give people the benefit of the doubt when they aren’t.


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