I have read thousands of student papers, and I routinely notice is that students (and the general public) really don’t have a good grasp of how to write or talk about race and racism. In particular I have taught several writing intensive courses, and these experiences have lead me to develop several writing guidelines that deal with racial and ethnic issues. I know some of these suggestions my seem fairly basic, but I always seem to have more than one student who has these sorts of problems with talking/writing about race. Here are the suggestions from class:
- Racial/Ethnic Bias: Avoid using racial slurs or outdated terms, unless directly quoting from a source or if it is absolutely necessary. For example, you could say, “Racial slurs such as spic or chink are commonly used in the locker room, but not in public settings.” Sometimes you’ll find older books that use outdated terms; if you are quoting them directly you shouldn’t change wording.
- While racial slurs are easy to avoid, the more common problem is using universal terms or passive voice to avoid specificity. You should not be too vague in the name of political correctness. For example, don’t say, “People were lynched by mobs.” Instead be frank, say, “Most lynchings involved White mobs lynching African Americans.” I often find students avoiding racial terminology, especially for Whites. Sometimes doing this takes away from the clarity of your writing. It is also important that we name the actors in any given situation; passive voice generally obscures the actors and denies the power of racism.
- Over Generalizing: Be careful not to overstate findings or group differences. For example, don’t say, “African Americans do not support the Iraq War,” Instead say, “African Americans are less likely to support the war in Iraq.” Substitute “all” for many, most, a majority, etc. It is very important to remember that there is diversity within groups and phrases like “all” or “none” obscure that diversity. There are appropriate times to say “all”/”everyone” or “none”/”nobody” just make sure you really do mean what you are saying. For example, I could accurately say everyone in my (Prof. Sullivan) high school graduating class is white.
- Capitalizing Racial/Ethnic Groups: Ethnic groups should always be capitalized. For example, African Americans, Irish, Ashanti, etc., but there is some disagreement about whether or not racial terms, specifically, Black and White should be capitalized. You can make your own decision, but you must be consistent. (I have been wavering on this one lately. I used to be of the capitalize racial terms school of thought, and now I’m starting to back off of it. I always capitalize the term Asian, when it am using it as a racial category. I’ve thought about using lower case for color terms, but as you can see I don’t have a clear answer for this dilemma.)
- First, Second, and Third Person: Use first person (I, we) when you want to emphasize your own belief, perspective or experience. Avoid using second person (you) unless you are directly addressing the reader. For example, you shouldn’t say. “You should take your grades seriously” since I (Professor Sullivan) am your reader. Instead, change it to “Students should take their grades seriously.” Since your audience for this paper is me (Prof. Rachel Sullivan), you should avoid using “you” in your papers, unless you are speaking directly to me. Third person (she, he, it, they) is usually the best in you papers.
- Passive Voice: Passive voice is weak and often takes agency away from an actor, allowing someone to avoid responsibility. For example, don’t say, “Divorces were granted.” Instead say, “Judges granted divorces.” Don’t say, “Blacks were lynched.” Instead say, “White mobs lynched Blacks.”
I know the first one seems self explanatory, but almost every semester I get students writing about “colored people”–like it’s 1950 or something. I have taken to explaining that colored people is an outdated term and that it doesn’t have the same connotation as “people of color.”
Now, I’m probably going make some people mad, but I see these same problems in the way that many bloggers write about race. I’m not trying to put anyone down because we all fall into these traps. I’m sure if you look through my blog long enough, you will find some of these problems. In fact, I think given the pervasiveness of racism and stereotyping it is very difficult for anyone to completely escape racist and/or stereotyping language. I also think that many of these same sorts of guidelines can apply when we are talking about other forms of social inequality–sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and so on.
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I rarely use the term, “African American,” so I tend to capitalize Black..
I think that “African-American” and “Asian” should be capitalized simply because of the place-name. The problem of capitalization for Black/White is tricky, but I think the distinction should be about whether you’re naming a group of people or an actual color: Black culture vs. black skin, even in a sentence like “the study clearly shows a statistical disadvantage for people with black skin.”
I’m wary of using “African-American” because not all Black people are African-American (Fijians or actual Africans, for instance, surely suffer the same potential on-sight discrimination in the U.S. as African-Americans).
I very much like your suggestion about the passive voice. Not only is it stylistically awkward, but it does feel like a euphemism: “yes, mom, some cookies were eaten” vs. “yes, mom, I ate the cookies”. The first one clearly feels like someone is trying to avoid blame.
Thanks for the reminder that language affects our thoughts in subtle ways.
I would imagine that your hands are full in pursuing this path. Your work is essentially that of eliminating a flawed foundation and inviting students to think critically about fundamental ways of perceiving their world. In many respects, it must be like teaching people to walk after they’ve suffered a significant injury.
Coincidentally, I tend to not use the term African-American because it is a sloppy construction and, in many respects, obscures the substance of issues. When it is used, I believe it should be used as a political term, rather than a cultural term. Specifically, one cannot be an African-American (in the conventional sense – the Jesse Jackson sense) if one is not a citizen of the US. So, there were very few African Americans before 1865 – and non US citizens, resident aliens and other Africans residing in the US are not African Americans either. Context is everything. Good luck.
Reminds me of our tutor trying to persuade a guy in our class on Byzantium that referring to the Muslims as ‘Saracens’ was not a good idea.
My grammar oath
“I do solemnly swear to not use the passive voice. An infinitive will never be split by me”
TJ and Polymath,
Both of your posts remind me of the same point, and that is that we have to be careful about avoiding using the term black as a direct synonym for African American. Although it may be cumbersome, the closest equivalent to would be “Black American.” The primary reason being that most black people in this world are not African Americans. This is why I would also avoid the term “Black culture.” It is probably better to say “Black cultures” or refer to the specific group.
I really don’t have an strong opinion one way or the other on the Black vs. African American debate, but I do think that people need to understand that the terms don’t mean the exact same thing. Black is broader.
temple 3 said, “So, there were very few African Americans before 1865 – and non US citizens, resident aliens and other Africans residing in the US are not African Americans either. Context is everything. Good luck.”
You know that is a good point. Until the 14th Amendment enslaved Africans in the United States of America were not citizens.
I also grapple with the terminology for people of African descent who live here in the US, but whose families came here well after slavery. Because the cultures and the lives of these immigrants are are different than those whose families have been here a long time.
Living in New York really helps drive this point home. The diversity of the black population here is amazing, but I admittedly cringe when I hear West Indians and Afro-Latinos say they aren’t black. Not African American I can live with, but not black. My gut reaction which I try to filter out a little is–well you may not think your black, but everyone else does. I had a great discussion about this in my African American sociology class, and my black students were pretty evenly divided between African American, West Indian (Jamaican mostly), and Afro-Latinos. It was actually kind of funny because it was one of the moments where the white students were totally clueless, in part because the distinctions were lost on them prior to the class.
But it is like teaching people how to walk. I find the younger people are usually worse. The sort of colorblind ideology limit their open discussions of race, and they are really navigating new territory when you have a frank discussion about racism.
I can see your point and inn the more direct meaning of gramatical accuracy I agree wholeheartedly. However English is an interesting double jointed highly variable language. Trying to pin down nuance of meaning when issues are contested can be met with stiff resistance. This can be seen in the hyper fast mutation accepted in English grammer from decade to decade. You yourself have used the term outdated when referencing less than a forty year period.
There has been a war for the accepted definition of words. fighting is most vicious over political and sociological terms. I have thrown grenades into classes where the prof is intentionally misusing word meanings to obscure an agenda. It doesn’t get me liked or good grades but I do see a few lightbulbs go off in students minds. They start the process of thinking rather than accepting.
Don’t be too upset though, when I say throw grenades it usually is soft spoken and polite. Usually asking for the meaning of a term and asking for the relavance of alternate definitions. If I get shut down, I desist, but the interplay and knowledge that the language is being manipulated is usually enough. If someone needs to be beaten over the head they are usualy not ready to think anyway.
Unfortunately this is what you get with a Political Science buff who also gets into philosophy.
I am in general sympathy with your suggestions and what I think motivates them. I’m not sure about all the details, though. With respect, I offer a few reactions:
Racial/Ethnic Bias: Avoid using racial slurs or outdated terms, unless directly quoting from a source or if it is absolutely necessary. For example, you could say, “Racial slurs such as spic or chink are commonly used in the locker room, but not in public settings.” Sometimes you’ll find older books that use outdated terms; if you are quoting them directly you shouldn’t change wording.
I agree. But you need some quotation marks around those terms to clarify their status.
In philosophy we make (much too big a deal about) a distinction between the “use” and “mention” of a term. It is called “The Use/Mention Distinction”, unsurprisingly. The idea is that there is a difference between “using” a term in a sentence, in which case it performs whatever linguistic role it normally does, and merely “mentioning” it, in which case that term is merely an object of reference of the sentence that has no linguistic role or meaning as such. You distinguish them by putting quotation marks around terms that are only mentioned. (And there’s another big deal about single vs. double quotation marks, but let’s skip it.) So, if I say:
This book has lots of niggers in it.
I’m making a very offensive reference to the people described (using a racial slur to refer to the characters in the book). But if I say:
This book has lots of “niggers” in it.
I’m describing the language of the book (mentioning a word that appears frequently in the book, without actually using it to refer to anyone).
I usually introduce this distinction to my students whenever the discussion looks like it’s going to touch on possibly offensive language or terms of reference, and then make clear throughout the discussion that I’m always mentioning those terms when they come up, but never using them. In an urban university with a heavily-majority-non-white student body, this has worked fine so far.
Over Generalizing: Be careful not to overstate findings or group differences. For example, don’t say, “African Americans do not support the Iraq War,” Instead say, “African Americans are less likely to support the war in Iraq.”
Say whatever’s true. If you have solid grounds for making any statement about an entire group, most of the group, some of it, or whatever, say so. Don’t go beyond the evidence, but don’t be afraid to say what is what.
In the nature of things, universal statements about large groups of people are almost never absolutely true because people are so variable. But that’s implicit most of the time. You can say things like “blacks were enslaved in the South” – even though there were non-black slaves, some blacks were not slaves, some slaves were held outside the South . . . . Where that stuff is relevant, you should be sure to explain it, but if you’re just making a general point, it is understood that you’re not strictly claiming that your statement is true in each and every case mentioned and in no other cases. Normal people don’t talk that way, and you aren’t required to. (In practical terms, it helps to acknowledge the counter-examples at least once in the beginning, both to establish your goodwill and to fend off nit-picky literalists, which you find in every undergraduate class and public audience. But you don’t have to make a religion out of it.)
I could accurately say everyone in my (Prof. Sullivan) high school graduating class is white.
I think you can also say “white people are the mainstay of the Republican party, while Democrats rely significantly on black votes”, without inserting a disclaimer for every one of those categories plus each individual party member.
Passive Voice: Passive voice is weak and often takes agency away from an actor, allowing someone to avoid responsibility. For example, don’t say, “Divorces were granted.” Instead say, “Judges granted divorces.” Don’t say, “Blacks were lynched.” Instead say, “White mobs lynched Blacks.”
Say whatever makes sense. You can refer to bad acts without necessarily having to include a digression on the bad actors. Sometimes that’s not what you’re focused on, nor need it be. It isn’t denying responsibility to the guilty parties to discuss the crime itself, rather than who committed it; sometimes you tell the broad picture, and sometimes you focus on narrow slices, and that’s reasonable in the right circumstances. (Why would you say “Judges granted divorces”? Everybody knows who grants them. Presumably the issue is the divorces, not the judges – but your construction makes the judges the subject of the sentence and the divorces the object acted upon by the subject, which is not in keeping with the intention of discussing the divorces.) There’s no reason to run down a check-list of culprits every time something bad creeps into the text; it sounds kind of like the way conservatives are constantly appending “the well-known Communist _____” or “the atheist _____” to anyone they don’t like, because just saying their name isn’t enough.
Why link racism with passive voice and over-generalization? Both are bad, regardless of content. “Some cookies were eaten” vs. “I ate the cookies” or “All Republicans support President Bush” are perfect examples that makes the case while keeping Racial/Ethnic Bias as a separate topic.
Two newspapers I wrote for including my current one broke with A.P. style in terms of capitalizing Black and White both. I’m not sure how common that is. At one paper, there was a long discussion about which style to adopt.
African-American tends to be used more as a noun, whereas Black is an adjective, mostly because Black as a noun is often considered offensive by readers, though African-American isn’t inclusive of people who are Black but not American, for example as stated.
I think there’s a lot of division on self-identification by race, but I think that’s to be expected because people are so different within racial groups and often there’s an assumption that they’re not different in every race but White, which often leads to the One Person as Spokesman problem.
The use of passive voice dilutes the impact of any action. In fact, I think one of the few passive sentences that was considered effective as a journalism lead was “President John F. Kennedy was shot today” because of who he was and what happened. FTMP, direct voice conveys the power of an action, and in the case of race and racism, the responsibility as well. It needs to be said who lynched Black people, not just that it happened to them while leaving the guilty parties(and the system they supported and validated through their actions) out. It’s done in these cases so White people can distance themselves from the guilt of their forbearers(in a way somewhat different than saying, my ancestors weren’t there at the time, even though you in the now, are benefitting from the system that fostered those behaviors in the past.) It might be conscious or unconscious when it’s done but it’s still being done. Eating cookies and lynching Black people are not comparable, outside the fact that active voice gives power and accountability to both. Other than that detail, they really can’t be compared.
As others have suggested, I suspect you’ve struck upon the fact that students and the general public really don’t have a good grasp of how to write or talk. While the problems Prof. Sullivan identifies may impede emotional discussions more than other discussions, I encounter these problems in all kinds of discussions (including in my own writing!)
Interesting topic. I’ve been puzzled by the extensive hyphenation of every group by their continental ethnic origins except for those of European descent. Why do we say “African American”, but not “European American”. Personally speaking, I’m closer to Italia ancestrally, than most Black Americans are to Africa, and yet they’re referred to as “African American”, but I’m called “white”.
Even the definition of “white” has changed considerably over the past two hundred years of American history. Benjamin Franklin considered Italians of a “swarthy complexion” and thus were not considered “white” at it was defined at the time. Fast forward to Ellis Island, and the passenger manifests, where under the heading “List of Race or Peoples” , there are two listings for Italians- “Italian (North).” and “Italian (South).” I beleive its an indication that norther Italians were Eurpean, and thus more “white”, and that southern Italians were Medditeranean, and thus not white.
The capitalization issue is interesting.
In the Deaf community, a distinction is made between people who are deaf (a physical condition of hearing loss) and people who are Deaf (which implies, generally, an active participation in the Deaf community, an embrace of ASL and a viewpoint which does not see deafness as a disability).
IIRC, in the UK, it used to be that, amongst activists, “Black” referred to both people of African and Asian origin. Both groups were included, and the word was capitalized, in order to emphasize the political struggle of both groups, both oppressed by a white society (lower case). Whether this is still the case, I don’t know.
Just out of curiosity, what would one call a naturalized American citizen who is white, and was born in South Africa? Would s/he be an African American, South African American, Afrikaaner American, or something else?
Just out of curiosity, what would one call a naturalized American citizen who is white, and was born in South Africa?
That question becomes especially important in the context of affirmative-action programs, scholarships for African-American students, and similar. I had a friend in high school who was Egyptian-American — his parents or grandparents, I can’t recall which, were immigrants and he was born in the U.S. — and he definitely struggled with the decision to check “African-American” on applications for college and for scholarships. Since he was demonstrably African-American, if that phrase is interpreted in a strictly literal way, he presumably had every right to check that box; on the other hand, he knew that the people looking at that box would assume that he meant he was black, and he wasn’t. It would be an even bigger issue when dealing with a white person whose family had immigrated from Africa, because at least the Egyptian-American guy was of a racial category that would classify him as a minority/under-represented/relatively more likely to be oppressed or discriminated against as he was growing up in the U.S.; not so true for a white kid.
And the two things I neglected to mention in my previous post:
1. The real source of conflict, for my friend and very likely for other people in a similar situation, was that there was a chance that checking that box might positively affect his chances of getting into that college or winning that scholarship, which was what he wanted; however, being a generally honest and ethical kind of guy, he had some doubts about whether that would mean he had gotten into that college/won that scholarship under false pretenses.
2. Out of the options Pietro suggests, I like Afrikaaner-American. Shorter and clearer. :)
I’d heard a (perhaps apocrypha) story that Dan Rather announced that, “in a sign of the times, for the first time South Africa is sending an African American to the Miss Universe Pageant.” The premise of the story is that CBS had a policy of using the term “African American” in place of “black,” even when the substitution made no sense.
I’ve known a couple of white people from S. Africa. I’ve wondered what they make of the t-shirts that depict the African continent and say, “It’s a black thang; you wouldn’t understand.”
Adding to Liz’s comments, is there a “proof test” for affirmative action programs? Does one have to prove one’s ethnicity? For example would some one with a Spanish sounding surname have to prove what percentage “Hispanic” one is, or of what origin and generation? Should that someone whose family had been here for five or six generations still be entitiled to “affirmative action”?
I must have missed the part where this is a thread about affirmative action.
Good point! Mi dispiace. I was trying to point out that we often use these terms, but without any conscious thought as to how their defined. This topic prompted a recollection of a book that I read some time ago, The Next American Nation by Michael Lind. One point he made was that Black Americans are arguably the most “American” of all because they are a blend of African, European, and Native people. In essence mutts. He also made mention else where in the book iof Statistical Directive #15, something I never heard of. I found this link which explains it. Anyway the book is a fascinating look at American identity.
Sorry, Ampersand; sort of my fault. :) My main intent was to highlight the question of whether there are times when it makes more sense to use a really exact word, even if that word isn’t as commonly liked/politically correct/widely regarded as inoffensive/etc. as the other options: if you want to have a scholarship for black students, but call it a scholarship for African-American students, you might not end up doing what you intended to do.
For Discussion: Do you think that there is actually a race that is African-American?
Consider the slave population. Generally brought to the colonies and later the States against their will, the travel and living conditions were less than ideal. Not all survived the journey. Those that survived and bred families probably had genetic traits that helped, and those genetic traits may account for medical statistics that show up in US Blacks today, such as high blood pressure.
Research project: Name some characteristics that show up more often in Blacks. Look at medical and other statistics to gather characteristics and discover if the are unique to US Blacks, or common in South Africa or other places with medical (or other) statistics. Can you identify anything that suggests that Colonial or US slaves were genetically different from the average Black in the world? What about deaths during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 or polio or any other US disease with statistics? Were Blacks more or less appropriately represented?
Maybe there really are African-Americans, and they are distinguished from others by more than the color of their skin.