Word Nerd: How to talk about race

9 May

Sometimes, students who are getting ready to go abroad to study have apprehensions about using words to describe race or ethnicity that may offend someone. Here’s a rough guide to talking about race.

What is race?

There is no scientific basis for race. No DNA defines black, white, or any other people. Some populations share certain genetic characteristics, but no traits are exclusive.

You may have read the recent news about a flight that got delayed when a woman passenger became suspicious of a fellow passenger who was dark, had curly hair and a foreign accent, and was silently scribbling a strange code on a notepad. She alerted the authorities, who interrogated the man and were embarrassed to learn that he was no terrorist, but a distinguished Italian economist from an Ivy League university, and that his ‘secret terrorist code’ was actually mathematical calculations. This incident reveals not only the woman’s ignorance, but also the fact that our perceptions of race do not reflect reality.

So if race is not real, why worry about it?

Race may not be ‘real’ in scientific terms, but racism is a reality. Racism exists when one group dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another, based on differences it considers hereditary and unalterable. It doesn’t matter whether you are a racist or not – if you live in modern society, you suffer and/or benefit from racism.

Racism is a recent development, if you consider that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. Inclusiveness and diversity make a society more stable and prosperous, as Spain learned after expelling the Jews (along with their skills and capital) in 1492.

In his famous speech titled “The Other America”, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described racism as “a myth of the superior and the inferior race… the false and tragic notion that… one particular race is responsible for all of the progress, all of the insights … [and] another… is totally depraved, innately impure, and innately inferior. In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide… If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist… It is not the assertion that certain people are behind culturally or otherwise because of environmental conditions. It is the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior.”

Some historians say racism did not cause slavery, but rather, it was the other way around: racism served to justify slavery. With European colonial expansion, which began five centuries ago, skin colour increasingly became the justification to dehumanize dark-skinned people.


Negroes for sale Jacob August 1859

British India was no exception. As famines devastated India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eyewitnesses described train wagons and warehouses loaded with foodgrains bound for foreign markets. Meanwhile, the government obsessed over welfare cheaters, and made starving people work to earn relief. One relief camp recorded 3,000 deaths in four days. The government’s explanation? To give one example, it claimed that Gujaratis were a “soft” race, “unused to privation” and “seldom worked at all”.

Racism was and is a global problem. We can’t make it go away any time soon, but we can become more aware about how we perceive and speak about our own and others’ history.

Which terms are respectful?

Black people: “African-American” is a respectful and historically accurate term for the most part. “Black” is not rude or insulting in American English. You may notice Dr. King used the word “Negro” in the 1950s and ’60s, but that word is considered outdated now. The other N-word is not acceptable in any conversation, unless you are Black and speaking to another Black person in a certain context. If you’re even remotely unsure about its appropriateness, that’s a sure sign that you have no business uttering it!

Asians: In the US, “Asian” generally means East Asian – Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese. Southeast Asians are from the region that stretches from Myanmar to the Philippines. South Asians are from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and all the countries in between. Words such as ‘Jap’, ‘Chink’ and ‘Paki’ are serious no-no’s – your peers will not judge you kindly if you use these words, which are dripping with prejudice.

Middle Eastern people: Middle East is a Eurocentric term; many prefer to call the region West Asia. Calling someone ‘Jewish’ is better than calling them ‘a Jew’ – another word loaded with prejudice. Obviously, not all the people of this region are Arabs, nor are they all Muslim, so avoid making assumptions.

Indigenous people: Keep in mind that it may not be possible to tell by someone’s name or appearance whether or not they belong to a Native American, aboriginal, or First Nations group.

People of colour: Do not say “coloured people”. That implies that there are two kinds of people in the world: white people and others. “Others” are, obviously, very diverse. “Coloured people” was a term used in apartheid South Africa, where racism defined the state. Today, “person of colour” is acceptable, but “coloured person” is not.

If you don’t need to know someone’s ethnicity or race, don’t discuss it unless they bring it up first. And then, if you really need to, just ask directly and respectfully.

The bottom line? Respect

As Jamaican musician Bob Marley – whose 35th death anniversary falls on Wednesday – sang (quoting Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie’s speech at the United Nations in 1963):

Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
And another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance
Than the colour of his eyes
Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all
Without regard to race
Until that day
The dream of lasting peace and world citizenship
And the rule of international morality
Will remain but a fleeting illusion
To be pursued but never attained.

BY: Uma Asher


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