Did you receive your 2020 U.S. Census form in the mail yet? The other day I did, but before I could open it, my mind took me back to 1984.
I was a new teacher teaching a lesson on global studies at a large high school in New York City. There were over 3500 students in this diverse, multiracial school, many of whom were from South and Central America.
My class consisted of forty-five 9th and 10th graders, who were new to America and who barely spoke English. I was teaching a lesson on the racial and ethnic origins of some of the countries my students migrated from, telling them the history of their mixed heritage when one of my students rudely interrupted me.
Apart from her broken English, she reminded me so of my own daughter in every way. I don’t recall the particular nation I was focusing on in my lesson that day, perhaps Haiti, Suriname, or the Dominican Republic.
As I highlighted the Spanish, Dutch, and French connection to this nation’s ancestry, everything was going smoothly until I mention its African connection. That’s when she blurted out loudly, “me not no n-gg-r!” Everyone laughed, of course — except me. After regaining control of my class, and my composure, I smiled at her and said, “Neither am I.”
So, where am I going with this? When we talk about race and ethnicity, we must have a vocabulary to match the subject matter. Students need to know which words are preferred, which are contested, and which words are unambiguous insults that should not be used unless their goal is to offend.
When it comes to race names, proper nomenclature is so essential. Racial terms and their meanings are constantly changing. Terms commonly accepted a generation ago may be unacceptable today. For instance, classifying racial groups as White or Black are acceptable terms, Red and Yellow are not. You probably already know the myriad of names and racial pejoratives that are widely considered to be insulting, but how many of us know the terms that have become obsolete over the last generation – terms like “mulatto” (now bi-racial) or “slaves” (now enslaved?) How many even care?
The term “Oriental” was not necessarily used as an insult, but since 1970, Asian Americans have insisted that the proper term is Asian, not Oriental. They’ll tell you, “Oriental is a type of rug, Asian is a type of person.”
Likewise, (notwithstanding old Hollywood movies), the word “Indian” was never acceptable. The term “Indian” was given to the Indigenous Americans because Columbus thought he had landed in islands near India, so it’s all a 500 yearlong mistake — i’m just sayin!
Historians, linguists, and PC police tell us when classifying racial groups the easiest way to avoid serious offense is to stick with the continent names — European, African, Asian, American — but even this can cause confusion as it did with me.
Recently, a dear friend stopped me while I was in his place of business and asked me a question – “why do blacks identify themselves as African-Americans?” I promptly replied because the term connects us to the continent we were forcibly removed from. He quickly countered by telling me that his ancestors were from Ireland, but he did not go around identifying himself as an Irish-American, just an American! Wanting to keep our friendship strong, I didn’t go there with him. I politely paid for the item I purchased and bid him a good day.
His passionate emphasis on the word American did not diminish my feelings for Africa one bit. It merely reminded me of an old quote from Malcolm X when he enlightened us that one’s location is not indicative of one’s identity. “If a cat gives birth to kittens in an oven,” said Malcolm, “you wouldn’t call them biscuits, would you?”
If you read his autobiography or saw his movie, you may remember another famous quote by him concerning blacks coming to America. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” said Malcolm, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.”
Similarly, Mexican-Americans who are descendants of people who were living in what is now the Southwestern U.S. when it was Northern Mexico can justifiably claim, “we did not cross the border,” instead, in 1848, “the border crossed us.”
The varying ways in which the U.S. government has counted Americans over time offer a glimpse into our country’s past, from the days of slavery to the recent waves of immigration. Currently, the U.S. recognizes five racial classifications — American Indian (or Alaskan Native), Asian, African-American, Native Hawaiian (or Other Pacific Islander), and white.
It was not until 1960 that people could select their own race. Prior to that, an individual’s race was determined by census takers, known as enumerators. Moreover, it was not until 2000 that Americans could choose more than one race to describe themselves, allowing for an estimate of the nation’s multiracial population.
Then there’s this question – “Why don’t we just get rid of racial categories? Wasn’t it Dr. Martin Luther King who said he wanted his four children to live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?”
And wasn’t it distinguished anthropologist Alan Goodman who enlightened us that we are all mongrels, that humans have been mixing for centuries? According to evolutionary biologists, we are all descended from the original people of Africa. Depending on how you look at it, you could say that we are all mixed raced or were all Africans — i’m just sayin!
Be that as it may, race grouping isn’t the culprit, but our attitude toward others not of our group is. We all want to live in a society where people are valued for who they are, not what they look like. But pretending that race doesn’t exist or matter is not the same as treating people equally.
Without accurate data on race, how would we know what equality is? For example, if we didn’t track race data, we would never know that schools today are more segregated than they were in 1960. We wouldn’t know there is an enormous wealth gap between African-Americans and whites. We wouldn’t know that Native Americans have the highest rates of diabetes, that one out of every four Latinos lives below the poverty line, or that the number of hate crimes against South Asians and Arab-Americans has increased exponentially since September 11, 2001.
Official racial categories have determined whether a person may enter the United States, attain citizenship, marry a loved one, enter a medical school, avoid an internment camp, vote, run for office, annul a marriage, or open a casino.
Racial categories have affected whether an employer offers a person a job, whether a criminal defendant gets lynched, whether a university admits an applicant, and whether a heart attack victim receives the proper therapy. So the next time someone tells you that filling out a census form “don’t matter,” please enlighten them.
Regardless of our racial classification, the attitudes we entertain about racial groups have been baked in our minds practically since birth. Blacks, ironically, are more apt to harbor negative beliefs about their physical features than other racial groups do. No doubt, much of it is subliminal. One comedian joked about it this way – “growing up, my mama told me that I had that bad kind of hair so many times that I dreamed when I went to bed at night my kinky hair got up and went out robbing banks somewhere.”
By now, hopefully, the young lady I taught 36 years ago has grown, and perhaps she’s a mother or grandmother. Hopefully, she’s shed the self-hatred that comes from denying her heritage, the pain from thinking her color is too dark, body too thick, hair too short, and her afro-centric features too unattractive.
Hopefully, she no longer sees herself through a “glass-darkly” and loves herself unconditionally.
Hopefully and mercifully, she has stopped self-medicating her face, her hair, and her body with harmful creams, lotions, lashes, extensions, and crazy diets, all of which are designed to disguise what’s deep in her DNA.
Prayerfully, she’s now “woke” and knows she’s beautiful and “wonderfully made.”
If she does, though I may never see her again, the lesson I taught all those years ago was one of the most meaningful lessons that I’ve ever taught – i’m just sayin!
Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.