Yes, the title is meant to be inflammatory enough to make you read it. However, what I’m writing is not about individuals of a particular race, but why the way we categorize them is an issue. Linguistically, we are removing the idea that the person in question is American first before they are anything else.
Below the article is a video. It’s Whoopi Goldberg (one of my favorite celebrities) saying something that I had never considered before I heard her take on it. At about 7:30 in the video is where it starts. Go ahead and watch it, I’ll wait. ….. Done? Ok, moving on.
My family is multi-racial. My sister and brother both have children who are more than one race. Before I heard what Whoop had to say on the matter, I was very diligent in saying African American…even though the father of one of my nephews is Jamaican and the father of the other three niece and nephews is Haitian. I grew up thinking that using African American, instead of just saying Black, was more appropriate; more desirable.
That was what I had always been taught. My grandmother used to say Colored, which used to be acceptable, but then wasn’t anymore. To my mind (at 6 years old) Colored seemed like the most accurate term to use. And since I had no understanding of the history associated with the word, it seemed the most appropriate, so that’s what I used at first. But I grew up fairly poor, so I grew up going to predominantly Black schools, in predominantly Black neighborhoods. That was where I learned, from my Black teachers and classmates, that you don’t say Colored or Black, you say African American. This is the proper thing to say.
But here’s my problem: I’m White.
Sometimes I’m Caucasian, but I’m never a “Caucasian American”. I’m White. When I fill out forms, sometimes it says Caucasian…but the same forms always have options like “African American”. And forget about the form actually saying “Asian American” they always just say “Asian” instead….unless you’re Russian, or something like that, then you don’t have to be Asian…even though you are from the Asian continent, then you get to be White or Caucasian.
But me, I get to be just one kind of American. Linguistically, the “acceptable” wording implies that I’m the only kind of American that doesn’t require a disclaimer.
Technically, I’m not “white” I’m sort of bronze/beige/peachish sort of color. Beyond that, I’m a Florida native. 20 (verifiable) generations of Floridian to be precise. My grandmother’s mother (on both sides) was Seminole, my father’s grandmother was too. My family heritage traces back to the same area of Florida for 12 generations and includes: mostly Spanish, Black, French, and any other race/culture that was dumb/crazy/insightful/whatever enough to try to plant a flag in middle of the Florida swamps. If you ask me what my dominant family heritage is, I’ll say Seminole, not Native American (another disclaimer based phrase) but Seminole. If you want to get really technical, Creek and Seminole is more accurate, I think my father’s grandmother always considered herself Creek…but that’s a history lesson for another time.
So calling me Caucasian is just stupid. No one in my family history has even seen the Caucasus Mountains, so why am I Caucasian? Most Blacks in America have never even been to Africa. Not only that, but Africa has White folks too, so why aren’t White Africans allowed to be African American? The majority of Americans of color are so many generations removed from Africa that saying “African American” is just as asinine as calling me Caucasian.
But I get to just be called White. Because you don’t have to add a disclaimer to White that reminds everyone that being White in America already means that you are American. Oh, and if I’m a White Christian in America, I’m an American Christian, not a Christian American.
In fact, listen to the news and see how many professional journalists use those “acceptable” terms that separate particular races and cultures from being American before they are anything else. Because that’s what’s happening when we say African American, Mexican American, LGBTQ American, is that we are making them something else before they are American.
OK, I’m probably missing a few points in this because I’m not a neuroscientist, but basically, the way we comprehend the words we use in our language is reinforcing racism. Consider it a form of Laissez-Faire Racism, symbolic racism.
When you use terms that linguistically qualify someone as ____ American, you are mapping your brain to go ahead and think of that individual is something else, and then American. When you have, or allow, a linguistic separation like that, you can then, more easily mentally categorize the person as American second. When you can mentally categorize someone as an American second, they then become less deserving of the same rights, privileges, and opportunities that America has to offer.
Making matters worse, we’ve managed to fool entire races of Americans into thinking that it’s more acceptable, more correct, for them to be American second.
Why? Why do I get to be just White but my neighbor has to be African American?