“People of color” or “colored people”? Cultural shaming gone wild

In her response to my blog about saying “colored people” vs. “people of color,” Wed. Journal digital editor Ashley Lisenby did herself honor and me a compliment. I appreciate being called to task in a way that advances the argument and questions no one’s ancestry.

I particularly liked what I found on reading more of what her source said about why and how often people say “people of” — that the phrase is “most often used outside of traditional academic circles, often infused by activist frameworks.”

I don’t get this entirely — how is something infused by a framework? — but “activist” lit a small light for me, leading me to realize that the phrase has become part of an ongoing rhetorical battle among academic elites — as much debate tool as natural progression in how people talk.

So someone who says one thing for the sake of clarity, naively wondering why not, finds himself on one side of a debate when he’d rather just cut through complexity and keep it simple.

Not so naively, yes. I’ve known about the anti-“colored” business for decades. Once in the ’60s, I absent-mindedly referred to “the colored” in conversation with a black friend. She had only to repeat it disbelievingly, and I knew I had erred.

Saying “black” was the rule then, decades before “African American” became the required (not merely accepted) go-ahead term.

Later, in a press conference in the early ’70s, an administration official told us a new presidential appointee would be “black,” not “Negro.” He said it smiling, in answering one of us. We knew what he was talking about: “black” meant with-it, progressive, civil-rights-oriented; “Negro” meant someone at least suspected, if not convicted, of uncle-Tomism.

There’s a history of language development-by-proscription, in other words, natural enough if you don’t take it too seriously, as the British actor Cumberbatch did when uproar ensued and he apologized for saying “colored people.”

“I’m devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology,” he said. “I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done.”

What if he had told Tavis Smiley and friends to get over it? He would have killed his career, no matter how good he is as a famous Edwardian detective.

People know better than to refuse to apologize. Words matter, thoughts matter, a little compulsion helps the cause. Bend over, say the activists, we know where you live. Say it our way or else.

Being acceptable is one thing, selective shaming is another. It’s an issue worth discussing.

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