I was musing the other day about how in American society it is offensive to refer to people by skin color as “yellow” or “red” or “brown” but somehow “white” and “black” are OK.
If you said, “I met a lot of white people today” or “I met a lot of black people today,” that would be one thing; if you said “I met a lot of yellow people / brown people” that would elicit quite a different response from society. And of course, there’s the whole Washington Redskins controversy.
I cannot quite figure out the thread of logic that holds this together. In the instance of white people, you could say that white people haven’t been historically oppressed in America and so it’s OK to call them white. But then what about black people? (Yes, I know, there is already some sensitivity in some circles about calling people “black,” but not anywhere to the extent of referring to people as “yellow people” or “brown people.”) In all of these cases, calling someone white, black, yellow or brown is a direct reference to their skin color.
well one reason is among older people of African descent is they take pride in being called negro or black my foster dad was about 65 years old in the mid 80s served in ww2 marched a couple of times for mlk but considered himself American
quote " I wasn’t born in Africa I don’t know anyone there or have people there so why would I wanna be called African ? of course he didn’t care for any labels like that you were either American or ya weren’t… on the forms they had to keep over the foster kids he didn’t even like the word Caucasian because no one he knew that was white came from some mountains in Russian…
I suspect it’s because “black” and “white” have a reasonably precise meaning in the U.S., i.e., Sub-Saharan African and European. (The average American would never come across a person of Melanesian descent.)
“Brown”, on the other hand, covers a wide range of people: people of mixed African and European descent, from the Middle East, from South Asia, from Polynesia, etc., and even most Hispanic people. They don’t seem to have a lot in common, apart from having skin in a shade of brown, so labelling them as “brown” isn’t all that useful.
“Redskins” was once used as a racial term, but people have decided that it’s offensive – and “Indian” and “Native American” is available to fill the gap.
Language goes its own way and trying to establish what people will identify as acceptable or unacceptable based on some examination of the words, themselves, is an effort doomed to failure.
For example, there is nothing in the definition of either word to indicate why Asian has replaced Oriental to identify people of East Asia. Basically, enough people of Asian descent in North America decided that the word Oriental was too associated with older stereotypes (often used in xenophobic propaganda) and sought a word without the baggage. (Claims that Oriental refers to objects such as carpets instead of people were developed after the actual shift in language began and have little to nothing to do with the origin of the actual shift.)
For that matter, brown and red are still used in conversation, although usually with carefully circumscribed context. Yellow, used in such epithets as Yellow Peril and its association in English usage with cowardice, is right out.
White people never objected because they weren’t marginalized. Black people had other worse words to fight against, and decided black was the best of the lot. And at least white people generally are of fairer skin, and black people generally are of darker skin.
Brown applies as often to black people as anyone else. I’ve seen some well-tanned American Indians with a reddish tint to their skin, but I’ve seen those that are just brown. And yellow? Asian skin runs the gamut, with their white as white as our white.
There’s also the unwieldiness of the replacement for “black”: African American. And that’s limited to one continent.
Finally, there’s the fact that people of African decent may not know their actual ancestral country, so just using a country name doesn’t work. And the only regional name is “African,” which is still in use to refer to people who are currently from that continent.
How about “colored” versus “people of color”?
Or, in the UK, “paki” versus “pakistani”?
There is no “logic”, per se, in why certain terms are pejorative; it’s mostly just whether in that culture a particular term is associated with racist contexts and in media that marginalized and insulted.
In the US, because of the appalling treatment that black people originally suffered, it was inevitable that whatever the original word for black people / african americans would now be offensive. It could have been “zibble”; that would now be offensive.
It seems to me that it’s more that it’s a catch-all for which there aren’t any good alternatives combined with the cultural history of the terms. For example, with a lot of white people, they’re just that, many don’t tie themselves a whole lot to their family’s heritage. However, I know plenty who do who actually say they come from an Italian, German, Polish, Swedish, Irish family… whatever. The implication there, in my experience, is that they’re still American, but they’ve held onto that heritage. Speaking for myself, I have various heritages, most white, some not, but I don’t hold onto anything specific to those cultures, so I don’t identify myself with any of them other than when those sorts of questions about my lineage come up.
I think black is similar. Part of it is that African American just doesn’t make sense in the same way it does for other Ethnic/Country-American terms, but also because there’s no meaningful tie for the majority of them back to Africa, their cultural identity is American, or perhaps some American sub-culture, but definitely not anything external to the US.
And how would it even apply to other cultures? Hispanic and Latin culture is it’s own thing, but what color would they be? Some are even paler than me, many are some shade of brown, many have significant Native heritage, and still others have significant African heritage. So you can’t just lump that culture into white or brown or red or black.
Yup. I’d guess that “brown”, while not as acceptable as “white” or “black”, is still closer to non-offensive than offensive… the worst aspect of it is that it lumps several different groups (such as Latinos, Asian Indians, Filipinos, some Middle Easterners, the list goes on…) together. I’d say that “red” is frowned upon. “Yellow” is offensive for the reasons you mentioned.
I have encountered “brown” in contexts where it did not strike me as dated or offensive. I’ve heard it used as a self-descriptive term (especially by Latinos and West/South Asians) and as a blanket term for racial minorities in the US. Sometimes this seems to include black/African-American people and sometimes it seems to mean everyone who’s neither black nor white.