Saturday, June 28, 2008
Racial Nomenclature Eats At Me
I generally read the Oneonta Star on weeknights, but last night the local PriceChopper Grocery was out of the local paper. So I got a USA TODAY. I also bought a box of Neapolitan ice cream.
The front page of USA TODAY had a story about how happy black people are in America. About 60% are really optimistic about the future. Buried in the coverage was a paragraph that said that 42% of black people preferred to be called "black." About 44% preferred to be called "African-American."
I've always thought either term was absurd.
No one is actually black in the way that an 8-ball is black.
So the term simply isn't accurate. When I'm teaching my children their colors, I couldn't point to a black person and say, black. Otherwise, they'd get the wrong idea.
Aside from this, some white people are actually black. Culturally black. This is what Ralph Nader meant when he said that Obama is talking white. Well, is Obama really culturally black, and so is he talking white, or is he just talking the way he grew up? He is half-white and he grew up with his white grandparents in Hawaii, and he also lived in Indonesia. Is he culturally black? No. He's not. Is he culturally white? Maybe. Plus, there are white people who are culturally black.
For instance, I lived in a small apartment building in Seattle. Across the hallway was a white man. Every night he ate fried chicken, and once in a while, he barbecued catfish on the back lawn barbecue. He talked black. One day, a little unsure of how to ask, I just said, "Are you black?"
He was as fair as Steve Martin in The Jerk.
This guy's name was Steve, too.
He laughed. He said, "I am white, but my parents died in a car accident, and I was adopted by a black family. So I am culturally black. I went to Morehouse, and am now the pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal church. You should come some Sunday. We won't bite you, we only nibble."
In subsequent conversations he told me that he had a hard time with his identity. Blacks didn't think he was black, and whites didn't think he was white. He identified himself as black, and said that should be sufficient. However, as I said to him, if I went around identifying myself as black, how would he feel about that.
He laughed. That guy laughed a lot. I think he was enjoying his life. (He believed in God with all his heart.)
Meanwhile, there is the other term "African-American." This term is REALLY nonsense. First of all, there are all kinds of Africans. Some of them, too, are white. For instance, any of the Boers of South Africa or the former Rhodesia who are now in America are at least technically "African." They may have been fervent supporters of apartheid, but they must still be considered "African." There are also people from India in Africa, especially in South Africa, where they were officially recognized as of a different caste than the blacks or whites. When you get away from Sub-Saharan Africa you get people of French descent in Tunisia, and in Algeria. There are many Semitic peoples all over that northern area of Africa. When they emigrate, are they "African-Americans" too?
I think what we mean when we focus on the term "African" is that they came over on the slave ships. However, many African-Americans today came by other means. Some chose to emigrate in the last two years. Plus, some blacks in the south did have the right to own slaves. In the New Orleans area, in particular, there were thousands of black slave owners. There are African-Americans who arrived recently from Trinidad or from Jamaica or from Nigeria, or from Rwanda.
And today there are people of mixed heritage, like Obama himself, who has partial slave heritage, and partial slave-owner heritage.
I'm dissatisfied with the terms "black," and "African-American."
But I also don't really like the term, "Indian," or "Native American." "Indian," of course is simply wrong. Columbus thought he was going to India. He didn't make it but the inhabitants of the Americas still got called Indians. That's absurd. But they aren't "native," either, since they come over the Bering Strait, and are actually Asians, except that they are no longer in Asia...
The term "Hispanic" is nonsense, as well. Technically, it means "of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain, Spain AND Portugal, or Latin America." Don't get me started on "Latin" Americans, since almost no one can speak Latin, and if they do, they are quite often white or black people educated at Oxford, or Harvard, or else they are Catholic priests, of just about any color. A Hispanic could be a refugee from Nazi Germany who got into Argentina or Chile after WWII, and now they're supposedly Hispanic after a mere four decades? If "Latin" denotes having derived from the Latin language, then why aren't French people "Latin Americans"?
Let's turn briefly to "Asians," which is just about the most nonsensical term ever invented. If there is nothing between Europe and Asia, then what is a woman from the Caucasus mountains? If she's an Asian, then so am I. And yet, I'm supposedly a Caucasian. The Caucasus mountains were the supposed original point of dissemination of the Caucasian people. Caucasians are Turkish, Chechen, and some ethnologists have argued that they fan out as far as Indonesia. Are these the same people I'm supposed to describe as "white"? Finnish people have the broad faces of Asians, but are otherwise in general, white. What are Pacific Islanders? How far out do you have to go to be considered "Oceanic"? Are the ancestors of the men who left the imperial navy's ship the Bounty in their mutiny to live on Pitcairn Island "Oceanic" by now?
In bird nomenclature many of the early guesses of 19th century scientists have turned out to be wrong, and now through DNA research, we can more properly align one species with another.
But if you check the DNA of the human race, we are all one species. This means we can all have children. Separate bird species cannot do this. As one species, all human beings are homo sapiens. Perhaps it could be said that we come in different flavors. Perhaps black people should be called "chocolate," or light-skinned blacks could be called "amaretto," or "hazelnut," while whites could be called "vanilla," and Native Americans could be called "strawberry," and Hispanics could be called, "toffee," using ice cream as the common designation. The "salad bowl" metaphor doesn't please me because it implies that we are separate species, as a pea and a lettuce leaf and a pepper are separate species. All human beings have the same human substance, as does ice cream.
So perhaps if we think of ourselves as flavors of ice cream, we wouldn't have all these melt-downs in regards to naming ourselves.
People who are spectacularly intermixed like Obama could be called Sundaes, or Neapolitans.
Already I see the problems. First off, the anthropophagous (cannibalistic) among us would feel encouraged, or even incited. Jeffrey Dahmer types would rejoice, and feel justified in keeping us in the fridge for nocturnal delectation after the kids are put to bed.
Also, my favorite flavor, mint, has not been represented among the human species (although eco-freaks are now denoted as green, their skin color doesn't come anywhere close. (Perhaps the aliens who are reported to be among us are green and may be the mint flavor I seek, but then they are probably not homo sapiens.)
With our obesity problem perhaps some would even be quite literal about this new flavoring nomenclature and begin to devour themselves. That could be a drawback to this new system of labelling I modestly propose. The autoanthropophagous (self-cannibalistic) are probably not a huge minority at this point in America. But who knows what a little encouragement might bring.