You say African-American; I say colored; we should all say PWCGRTAs.

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 Obviously, “Negro” feels out-of-date, but older blacks say it, so perhaps it’s not that bad.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.

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  • jj

    “African-American” doesn’t make it – I agree with Sadie, and for one of the very reasons she brings out.  I am well-acquainted with a dozen folks who are either from, or still resident of Africa.  They’re Egyptian, Zimbabwean, South African, and Libyan.  Not one of them is black.  Jesse Jackson wouldn’t allow any of them to be termed “African-American.”  They are, however, from Africa – which he and Al Sharpton are not.
    Aside from the fact that none of the genuine “African-Americans” I know are black,  I’ve also been suspicious of hyphenates in general.  I have a strong Irish heritage, and in fact possess an Irish passport – but I’m not an Irish-anything.  I’m an American, without benefit of hyphen.  Teddy Roosevelt, a fairly far-sighted fellow spoke to this best in an essay from 1916, called Fear God and Take Your Own Part. To quote:
    “The man who loves other nations as much as he does his own, stands on a par with the man who loves other women as much as he does his own wife.  The United States can accomplish little for mankind, save in so far as within its borders it develops an intense spirit of Americanism.  A flabby cosmopolitanism, especially if it expresses itself through a flabby pacifism, is not only silly, but degrading.  it represents national emasculation.  The professors of every form of hyphenated Americanism are as truly the foes of this country as if they dwelled outside its borders and made active war against it.  This is not a figure of speech, or hyperbolic statement.  The leaders of the hyphenated American movement in this country(who during the last eighteen months have been the professional German-Americans and Austro-Americans) are also leaders in the movements against preparedness… Once it was true that this country could not endure half free and half slave.  Today it is true that it cannot endure half American and half foreign.  The hyphen is incompatible with patriotism.”
    Not a thing to do with color, but nonetheless apposite, I think.

  • Gringo

    The Reid brouhaha shows that we would all be better off with a moratorium on playing the race card.

  • nosiafd

    I have searched, but can someone explain the acronym PWCGRTA?

  • Charles Martel

    people with close genetic roots to Africa

  • nosiafd

    Thanks!  Does that apply to the people I know that were born in Africa, now naturalized citizens living in the US?  A family who’s parents and many generations of  his ancestors were born in Africa.  Did I mention he is White?  Does he qualify?

  • Charles Martel

    nosiafd, who knows? The rug keeps getting rewoven and then freshly pulled out from under us.

    Your question reminds me of some ditz who was covering an Olympic event that had been won for the first time ever by a black man—in this case an athlete who wasn’t an American. The announcer, treading carefully and knowing that the word black is now considered racist, proclaimed this fellow “the first African American athlete to win this event.”

    The athlete in question must have been pleased to learn that skin color alone is enough to acquire U.S. citizenship. No need to even visit, legally or illegally, to pick up the honor. 

  • 11B40

    I grew up in the Bronx, back in the ’50s and ’60s.  When I would refer to Negroes as “colored people”, my mother would correct me by saying, “They’re not colored; they’re born that way.”
    The aspect that troubled me the most about the recent Reid brouhaha is the attempt to reclassify “Negro” into the “n-word” category.  Negro is the best descriptor for people with specific biological traits.  Those in the Racial Sensitivity Industry would like to broaden their market sphere and their extortionate opportunities by including more and more words in their trick bag.  I don’t need the moral wizards of the NAACP, Operation Rainbow, the Obama Administration, or any other cabal to explain the English language to me.  I know the difference between “racial” and “racist”, thank you very much.
    What also amuses me, in a watching the decline of the Roman Empire kind of way, is the divisions within the American Negro community based on things like skin-color, place/time of origin.  I seem to recall a movie directed by an American Negro, Spike Lee, that was about those divisions at an historically Negro American college.
    There used to be a Transit Union leader in New York City by the name of Mike Quill.  My father used to call him “a professional Irishman”, if you get my drift.

  • Charles Martel

    “My father used to call him ‘a professional Irishman,’ if you get my drift.”

    11B40, you reminded me of something I probably mentioned on this site several months ago, but it goes straight to what you said.

    I went to high school with a Mexican-American guy named Ross, an exceptionally intelligent fellow who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish despite having a Spanish surname, and who was the first kid in my very narrow world I ever heard mention Nietzsche.

    He went on to a prestigious major university where he later became student body president.

    About six years after I lost track of him he re-emerged as “Rosalio,” a communist community organizer who now spoke English with this incredibly amusing, cartoonish Mexican sing-song. When I saw a clip of him on TV doing his bad Speedy Gonzalez imitation, I cracked up. “Ross has become a Professional Mexican!” I said to myself.

    Mike, meet Rosalio.


    According to the American Hertiage Dictionary unless you are black  you don’t qualify – period.
    I raised the subject not only due to Reid’s remarks (Bill Clinton’s were just as curious but got less press) but the over all question of asking the race question  in the census.  What purpose does it serve other than to divide and distribute money and services from the Feds. If equality or equity is to be served, than a head count should suffice. Once you interject race into the count it diminishes both black and white. The ‘race’ question cannot legally be asked on a job application and yet it remains on the census. If the intention of the Feds was only equity, then hyphenate poor-American, middle class-American or rich-American. They would know then what services and in what communities need to be addressed regardless of race.
    I can only conclude, that the purpose is division and divisive and particularly for black, negro, colored, Afro-African-Americans of high yellow, blue black, half white, half black, with or without one grandparent who was white or Native American.
    So much easier to define and check the following: American born citizen Yes or No.