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incidents and accidents, hints and allegations

International Blog Against Racism Week
Kate kate_nepveu
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IBARW: (Almost) all of the conventional race labels are dumb.

Another post I should have made earlier!

As the subject says, (almost) all of the conventional race labels are dumb. "White"? Paper is white. People of European descent—which in contemporary American discourse, and probably elsewhere too (international folks?), is what "white" really means—are pink or olive or light brown. [*] "Black"? Likewise not an accurate color description. I've known people who self-identified as "black" who had skin lighter than me.

And more: since white is, as we were all taught in elementary school, the absence of color, it implies that color and therefore race is something only other people have (from the point of view of the dominant "white" population, which is after all the one that matters. </sarcasm>). And "black" and "white" are thought of as opposites, which unfortunately has been made true in a lot of ways when it comes to people, not paint chips, but is still a rotten implication.

[*] I know some people use "pink," which I rather like, but I think that it wouldn't be quite accurate for a lot of people with ancestors in southern Europe, along the Mediterranean, who in current discourse count as "white."

"[Location]-American/British" (etc.) is an identity statement that's not universally true. (An unhyphenated "Asian," unless the person is literally living in Asia, is worse, because it only acknowledges foreignness.) "Native American" is apparently only used by outsiders, and "native" has (to me at least) a faint connotation of "primitive." "Latino/a" and "Hispanic," those are my "almost": I'm ignorant and all I know about them is that people outside those groups tend to get them horribly confused, and perhaps there's also variant usage within the groups; I don't know if they have any negative implications. If anyone with knowledge would care to comment or to point me to useful sources, I would appreciate it.

As for group labels: "People of color" or "non-whites"? Same problem as "white." "Racial minority"? Err, only in limited contexts. Asia alone has 60% of the world's population.

What these labels actually mean, in the ways I hear them used, is, "this is where this person's ancestors came from far enough back that almost all of the people around them looked basically like them, or just where their ancestor (singular) came from if we can tell that the ancestor was from Africa and we're in America and maybe some other places too." So, as I already said, "white" people are really people of European descent; "Asians" are really people of Asian descent; "black" people are really people of (some) African descent; and so forth.

And yet, you will notice that rarely in all this week's discussions have I said, "people of European descent," or "people of African descent," or "people of Asian descent." I've tried, where I thought that level of precision would be helpful, but you know what? The phrases are just too cumbersome in ordinary language.

So I find myself, reluctantly, using "white" and so forth. I don't want to, and I wish there were something better. But at least when I use these terms, I'm aware of some of the implications in them and try to keep those implications from influencing my thoughts.

I'm sure I've missed something, besides my ignorance on "Latino/a" and "Hispanic": tell me!

(Deleted comment)
It's my understanding that in the U.S., "Indian" is actually preferred, though I welcome correction on that too. I try for "American Indian" to distinguish from the subcontinent.

And I think I missed that one, and I am glad.

(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-09 03:46 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-08-10 12:35 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - cofax7, 2007-08-12 03:10 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-13 02:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-08-10 12:07 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-10 01:10 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-08-10 03:34 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-10 01:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-08-11 04:25 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-08-10 12:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - dsgood, 2007-08-09 02:55 am (UTC)(Expand)
1) I always call myself "green" because I have a somewhat olive complexion (more so when I tan)

2) I've been confused for someone of every ethnicity except northern european. Seriously. I have no idea what this says, but I find it ammusing.

2) Did it ever occur in a way that made you the victim of racial prejudice?

(no subject) - lbmango, 2007-08-09 02:07 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-09 03:47 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rachelmanija, 2007-08-11 10:18 pm (UTC)(Expand)
When I was at my darkest-skinned (darker than most African-Americans, though rather lighter than East Africans), I was once asked if I was African or Arab. And I had someone address me in a language I didn't know. "I'm sorry, I thought you were Bengali."

I was somewhat lighter-skinned when I encountered someone who was prejudiced against me because I he thought I was Greek, and the two men who made nasty comments about Mexicans which they meant me to overhear.

Yup. Skin color is only part of what race means in America.

I really, really want to get to a long meaty post on some of the other parts. I need this week to be less busy.

(no subject) - kalimac, 2007-08-09 10:08 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - mmcirvin, 2007-08-09 02:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-09 03:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Hispanic and Latina/o

As used by those of us to whom it applies? (Sweeping generalizations from my particular experience, of course.)

It depends on context. Currently, Latino/a is in vogue and going strong, and generally refers to anyone of Latin American descent including lusophones (and on occasion, francophones), but not usually Peninsular Spaniards or Portuguese, primarily in the US, but also internationally. It has a certain pan-national flavor to it.

Hispanic (in English) usually refers to people of hispanophone ancestry, including Spaniards, in the US. It was introduced as a term by the US Census Bureau, and had its heyday during the Eighties. Consequence of which, having grown up then, it's a moniker I reach for frequently. Also, because hispano, in Spanish, is used for people of Spanish blood- or cultural-descent and/or hispanophones--that one overlaps folks in Spain and Latin America. Hispano is often used with the same kind of appeal on shared roots as latino, although only for the Spanish-speaking world.

In general, within the US, you're better off using Latino/a, as it will most often be applicable.

A lot of us tend to just use our ancestral origin when identifying, cf. many Bostonians being Irish. "Latino, sure. But really, I'm Mexican." Or Mexican-American. Or Chicano. Or pocho. Or de este lado. Or American. Or americano. Or--and this one's the truest one, if you ask me--Californian. It depends on who's asking and why.

Thank you. I did a quick web look and wasn't sure about what I'd found, but on reflection that look was a lot more cursory than it should have been even if I did want to go to bed. I apologize for asking for asking to be educated when I could have done more research on my own, and I appreciate your nevertheless taking the time to give me such a useful and detailed answer.

(no subject) - hermetic, 2007-08-09 08:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I do say "European-American" sometimes, but that's a deliberate attempt to call attention to both the fact that my ancestors were immigrants, just like yours and those of my Black friends and neighbors, and to some of what is and isn't lumped together. (Most Americans treat Greek and Italian ancestry as being more different than Ethiopian and Zulu, for example.)

Which sounds to me like a deliberate identity statement for you, which I have no problem with--and even if I did, it would hardly be any of my business. But "Asian-American" doesn't describe my own identity and so I don't like imposing it as a blanket term for people of Asian descent living in the United States.

(Also, very small nit: I was a foreign adoption, so my ancestors weren't immigrants.)

Mea culpa - redbird, 2007-08-09 11:25 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Mea culpa - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-10 01:13 am (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Mea culpa - redbird, 2007-08-10 01:26 am (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Mea culpa - kate_nepveu, 2007-08-10 01:38 am (UTC)(Expand)
Cod stocks are sadly depleted, alas - redbird, 2007-08-10 02:01 am (UTC)(Expand)
I just realized that my personal label of 'hispanic' means 'person-whose-main-language-is-Spanish' because I don't speak Spanish, and may have trouble talking with them.

I was told, years ago, by a Spanish professor that Hispanic meant native Spanish speaker, and thus she was Hispanic though her family was, IIRC, from Russia in relatively recent memory. (Maybe she had Sephardic ancestry? I forget.)

But as hermetic was kind enough to discuss above, this isn't a universal definition.

On the hispanic issue... I always wondered if Brazilians took issue with that because they don't speak spanish... Latina/o does solve that problem at least.

and is Chicano considered only Mexican?

In my experience, the Brazilians I've met have taken issue with being called Hispanic. They're not, after all. It's kind of like everyone else living in the Americas being somewhat annoyed at only people in the US being called Americans.

As for Chicanos, yes--it's specifically Mexican-Americans, and has some political tones to it.

Labels that purport to identify skin color are rather surreal. Our younger son is amused that he is considered a "person of color" and I'm considered "white," when his skin is lighter than mine--and I'm a fair-skinned person of Irish/English/Scottish/German background.

Yup. Humans can construct such interestingly convoluted things, don't they?

(no subject) - smillaraaq, 2007-08-10 12:19 am (UTC)(Expand)

A bit more background on 'color' names

Thank you for this post - I found myself mostly in agreement. (Except for the part about "pink" - my loathing of that color was well established before I came across 'pinky' as a slang for 'whitey', and has only increased since. I want nothing to do with it as a racial label, above and beyond my general displeasure with the color labels. However, people who really like rose and salmon colors may well disagree. *g*)

Having said that - and only speaking from what I've read and seen, not telling anyone they have to agree with this - (and I apologize if you knew this already) the term 'black' was, in the USA (and South Africa) originally only applied to people of 'pure' African blood, who tended to have very dark skin, to the point of a blue undertone. "Colored" meant a person of mixed European and African descent (or a Native American or of Asian descent) - a person who looked more 'brown' - ie - most people who consider themselves 'African-American' today in the USA. I get the impression that it was held that 'black' had the additional meaning of 'unschooled barbarian savage' or 'unlettered field hand', while 'colored' meant 'more like Europeans'.

In the post-Civil War era, it was considered (in 'white' society? in both cultures? I don't know) far more polite to call a person 'colored' than 'black' or 'Negro'. During the 1950's and 60's civil rights struggle, 'black' was reclaimed as a means of saying "we are very different from you, and we're not ashamed of it" to 'white' society. It wasn't until the '80s when Jesse Jackson started promoting 'African American'.

If you really want to get into confusing different takes on slang names for ethnic groups, ask three or four people of different ethnic/socio-economic groups from different countries in Latin America about 'gringo', 'negro' and 'blanco'.

- hossgal

Re: A bit more background on 'color' names

I'm not sure I knew about "pinky"/"whitey," but I share your distaste for both.

I was generally aware of most of the history you mention, but not the original use of "black." I'm sad to say it doesn't much surprise me.

Hi, I came across this from fight_derailing and am going to bookmark it because this topic keeps coming up on my lj whenever I try to talk about race and I haven't been able to quite formulate my thoughts. (Personally I'd have more sympathy for the people bringing it up if they were anything but unambiguously pure-anglo white, but that doesn't mean it's right to completely dismiss their arguments)