I can think of a billion reasons to dislike Harry Reid. The fact that he called Obama a “negro” is not one of them. It simply shows his age. (Although I do agree with Lloyd Marcus that it’s fine to be offended by Reid’s assumptions about white Americans.) The problem, of course, is what we’re supposed to call people with their genetic legacy a few generations closer to Africa than yours and mine (after all, if I understand my prehistory, we all originated in Africa). Apparently people with close genetic roots to Africa (or “PWCGRTAs”) are having this same debate (h/t Sadie):
The census and the Senate majority leader are the latest to call into question what are and aren’t acceptable terms for black Americans, but the battle has been waged among blacks for decades now. Obviously, “Negro” feels out-of-date, but older blacks say it, so perhaps it’s not that bad. “Afro-American” also sounds dated, but in a less jagged way than “Negro.” African American is the norm among the PC elite, despite the fact that a white person with South African roots should probably be included in the definition, and that, technically, everyone in the whole world has African roots. Black is a fine catchall, I suppose, but it just seems so damn inaccurate (I’ve never seen a truly black person). And what about “nigga”? Who can say it, and in reference to whom?
A sense of identity is an important part of life. It’s the reason gangs, fraternities and political parties are popular, and, among other things, it’s something slavery stole from generations of black Americans. Thanks to detailed records and surnames taken from ancient towns, many white Americans can trace their roots back to villages in Ireland, or find and visit long lost second cousins in Sicily—their lineages are often strong and well-defined.
But for most black Americans, whose undocumented ancestors were ripped from spots throughout the African continent, tracing their origins isn’t so easy. With no records to go by, it’s nearly impossible to tell from what part of Africa one originates without the help of expensive DNA specialists, who can then offer you what basically amounts to a ballpark estimation. So it’s no wonder so many blacks have tried (and failed) to create an all-encompassing nomenclature for an entire people, the thought process being, “If we can’t be Liberian American or Nigerian American, how about just black, right?”
But as I said before, the long list of names blacks have given themselves is full of half-truths and falsehoods, and constantly updating it is silly and distracting from truly important issues. That’s why I propose we settle this once and for all, with a term for blacks that is traditional, well-known and more accurate than any of its counterparts: colored.
This is not a new idea. One of my favorite cartoons ever was a Bloom County cartoon that showed perennial frat boy Steve Dallas standing with his most un-PC mother when a PWCGRTA youth walked by. Mom hollered out, “Look at that cute little colored boy.” Steve writhed. “Mom!” She tries again: “Negro?” Again, Steve corrects her. She cycles through Black, African American and Afro-American, all to no effect. Finally, Steve gives her the bottom line: “It’s person of color, Mom.” To which she comes out with the most obvious response: “Well, that’s what I said. Look at that cute little colored boy.” This cartoon, written in the late 80s or early 90s obviously could never be published today without Berkeley Breathed being run out of town on a rail.
In my town, my kids have responded to the confusion by insistently referring to all PWCGRTAs as Africans. Nothing I can say changes this. I’m afraid they’re going to get beaten up one day. Still, their confusion isn’t at all surprising, given all the various terms floating around, and the negative emotions and public opprobrium attached to many of them.
The fact is, if a group is seen as somehow lacking, any terms used to describe it will become degraded with time. Witness “crippled” (once a perfectly decent term) to “handicapped” to “differently abled.” No matter how you euphemize it, people understand that it’s not a good thing to be “differently abled.” PWCGRTAs would do better to focus on their cultural pathologies and to worry less about the PC-ness of the label attached to them.