adriellyn (adriellyn) wrote,

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A rant on the language of "Political Correctness"

I've been threatening to write this polemic for years now. Many who've heard the threats have encouraged me, saying they'd like to read it. Some even went so far as to say they'd link it and spread it, even not having a chance to preview it. (They know me well enough they probably know what they're in for, though, I have to admit.)

I have some "hot buttons". Quite a few of them, actually. One of them is messing with language in ways that make communication unnecessarily more complex. Some of the circumlocutions which have arisen out of the "Political Correctness" people are prime examples. In this post, I'm going to cover three of them. The first two, "Native American" and "African-American", I think I have a good case against. The third, "Asian", is included to show that it's not always so cut and dried. If you make it that far, you'll see what I mean.

Native American

Let's start with "Native American". As with all three I'll be covering, this has a straightforward, pre-existing meaning. Well, in so much as "American" does, anyway. A "native American" is someone native to "America" - whether the listener assumes that to mean the USA, or any part of "The Americas" is secondary.

The "Politically Correct" meaning which has usurped this is, of course, what used to be called "American Indian". That term has issues of its own, since it directly conflicts with describing an (Asian) Indian who's now American, or some American who's of (Asian) Indian ancestry. We have to call those "Indian-Americans", which is in parallel with "Italian-American" and "Irish-American", so that's not too awful. But it does lead to ambiguities of communication when the clarification of "American" and "Asian" gets elided when speaking of "Indians". An example:

This team has too many Chiefs, and not enough Indians. We need more Indians!

(The team in question was about one-third Asian Indian. Hilarity ensued.)

So, clearly, I'm not too fond of the previous habit of calling the "First Peoples of the Americas" just "Indians", or even "American Indians", any more than I am of calling them "Native Americans". But, another example to show more of why I don't like "Native American" as an alternative:

My friend went down to the Statehouse. Now, he's a native American - I mean, a native-born American - and he ....

And that stumble in speech (and speech it was at the time) is what I don't like about "Native American". The old term is flawed, yes, but not more so than the 'new' one.

By the way, in case you didn't hover over the links earlier, there is another term which many people have used since before I started hearing "Native American", even. I also alluded to another. "The First People(s)" is, however, too long to expect people to use. "Indigenous Americans" is just as bad as "Native Americans", even though it at least isn't as likely to come up with the original well-defined meaning in casual conversation. The best alternative (in my never terribly humble opinion) is "Amerind". Yes, that's derived from "American Indian" by shortening, but it has the advantage of losing the obvious brokenness by that shortening, and not having any other previous meaning with which it can conflict. (If anyone knows of others that are similarly short enough to see use, and which don't conflict with existing usage, I'd love to know of them.)


Next up is "African-American". This one's not quite so bad in terms of its previous meaning, at least. Or rather, wouldn't be if it weren't for the excessive way the would-be thought police have driven its adoption. However, the term now refers to "blacks" in America, even though not all Africans are blacks. Many Egyptians, for example, are not Arabs. They are Africans. They may not be "lily white" (a term of racism which I despise), but they are far more "white" than "black". An American who was once (or is only by ancestry) African could also refer to a relocated Boer - about as "white" as they come.

I can't find the transcript for this particular journalistic gaffe, but I watched the live coverage of Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa. One of the reporters covering the event had been so conditioned that he referred to Mandela as an "African-American". It's that sort of crap, along with the exclusion of non-blacks who used to be (properly!) covered by the phrase, which has me up in arms about it.

There is some history to the term, yes. I understand wanting to move away from "colo[u]red" and "Negro". "Afro-American" was a cute attempt at a substitution, but developed emotional and political baggage of its own - besides suffering from 'cute'. The "Black Power" movement of the late 1960's and early 1970's developed some such baggage for "black" - for a while. I don't still see any such baggage active, however.

Another example, this one in chat about someone who doesn't talk much in Ventrilo:

He said, "I've suspected for a while now - African-American?"

"Well," she replied, "As an Australian whose black ancestry is Aboriginal - no."

Frankly, for so long as there are people being described as "white", I find "black" to be the right term here. If you really need to identify more specifically, there's always "black Americans". If you really want to exclude those of Aboriginal or New Guinean ancestry, there's even "black African-Americans". But let's not make the mistake of thinking that all Africans are blacks, or that the only blacks are Americans.


Now, we come to the more problematic term, "Asian". This term came about as a reaction to the formerly more prevalent term of "Oriental". There are some very good reasons for those who've been described by that term to hate it. First, it's terribly Euro-centric. It means "Eastern". Of course, Japan, Korea, and China are more properly described as "western" if you live in much of the USA, and "northern" if you live in Australia.

Second, and related, it was always a way of putting the people and cultures down in the guise of calling them 'exotic'. It was a term of prejudice, plainly and simply, and those being so denigrated felt the sting quite sharply.

So, there's no going back to "Oriental". But what, then, is so bad about "Asian"? The fact that it's a shift in meaning. "Oriental" seldom referred to (Asian) Indians, or to Afghans or Turks. It most certainly did refer to Hawaiians. Turks and Afghans are undeniably Asian, and Pacific Islanders quite definitely are not Asians. Many of the Islanders greatly resent being described as Asians. That's what's so wrong with the attempt to substitute "Asian" for "Oriental". Unfortunately, the word "yellow" comes with too much baggage, so we can't extend the whites and blacks to have the yellows.

I don't have a good answer on this one. For all that I decry how inaccurate "Asian" is in describing Pacific Islanders, "Oriental" was worse, and "yellow" would also be worse. I don't have a good answer for this one. I wind up having to use "Asian", while trying to be aware of when it doesn't fit. I don't like this, but I'm stuck with it unless I come up with something better.

Tags: linguistics, rant, semantics

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