Race is a highly sensitive topic and yet so important that we cannot, and should not, avoid talking about it. But what makes discussions about race fraught with pitfalls is that even what to call people of different races is problematic, with terms that were considered appropriate at one time becoming frowned upon later, with those who grew up in one era having to remind themselves that the terms they once used casually are no longer socially acceptable.
This is true not just for races but also for ethnicities and nationalities with derogatory labels such as wogs, spics, dagos, chinks, frogs, krauts, and the like being casually used at various times though we would be horrified if anyone did so now. (See here for a more comprehensive list of labels used as ethnic slurs.)
Identifying people by their nationalities or its derivatives is usually acceptable but even here there can be problems. ‘Japs’ is derogatory but ‘Japanese’ is not. Similarly ‘Pakis’ is a no-no, but ‘Pakistanis’ is fine. Oddly enough, the abbreviation ‘Paks’ was used to describe Pakistani cricketers and seemed to cause no problems though I don’t know if that has changed because one rarely hears it these days.
In the US, this issue is even more fraught with pitfalls. We like to think that we are approaching a post-racial society (though we are far from it) but we still have to talk about race and have to choose with care what words to use because there are no general rules and each is a special case. Right now, referring to some people by colors such as black, white, or brown seems acceptable but using red or yellow to label groups is flat-out offensive.
Using the collective label ‘people of color’ seems to be the most respectful for those who are not white, but ‘colored people’ is now a huge no-no, although at one time it was acceptable. ‘Minority’ also seems to be used as a euphemism for those who are not white, even if as a group they are not the minority. The word ‘nonwhite’ seems more dicey because it defines someone by whom or what they are not and seems to give white a default, and thus preferred, status.
I used to think that using ‘Native American’ was preferable to ‘American Indian’ or just ‘Indian’ but was made aware recently by the chair of the Native American Program at Harvard University that in general that community has as their first preference the name of the specific tribe they belong to followed by ‘American Indian’ or ‘Indian’, and that ‘Native American’ is acceptable but is something that is favored more by academia than the people themselves.
The term ‘African American’ seems acceptable but Negro has fallen out of favor, being seen as archaic. Its use does not cause outrage but does raise eyebrows, and one usually finds only older people using it. Although all the people who use it are not bigots, I have noticed that older people who have bigoted views tend to be more likely to use it.
Recently a colleague at the university referred to ‘Oriental’ students at a faculty meeting. Afterwards, several people discussed privately that they were taken aback by that term because one rarely hears it anymore and the preferred term is ‘Asian’ though that covers a far wider geographic region than what the speaker intended. I spoke to my colleague privately and he was surprised to learn that he had committed a faux pas and grateful that I had pointed it out to him so that he could avoid making that mistake in the future. In our university, where we go to great lengths to avoid using terms that might be considered even mildly derogatory, the term ‘international students’ is preferred to ‘foreign students’ because it seems less exclusionary, though the latter is not considered offensive and is still used.
Sometimes members of a group can use labels to refer to themselves that would be considered highly offensive if used by others. So one should be wary of thinking that some term is acceptable simply because a group uses it to describe themselves. The n-word is of course the example that immediately comes to mind but there could be others. For example, some Indian-Americans refer to themselves as ‘desis’ but I am not sure how they feel about others using the term to describe them. (I explain here why I often use euphemisms such as the ‘n-word’ even though everyone knows what words I am talking about.)
Gene Denby had an essay on why we have so many euphemisms for race and why they change over time.
Minorities. Nonwhites. People of color. In some corporate-esque sectors, you might even hear someone use the term “diverse” as a modifier — as in, “We’re really interested in hearing a diverse voice on this issue,” as though an individual person might be diverse. Each of those terms came into wide usage in the 20th century, only to fall out of vogue and be replaced with a new one. Each replacement was meant to be less loaded than its predecessor, only to eventually take on all of that predecessor’s anxieties — and some new ones. Linguists refer to this process as “pejoration.”
“If a word that refers to something always appears in sentences where that thing is framed negatively, then that term will take on that negativity,” Lauren Hall-Lew, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, told me over email.
[Stephen] Pinker calls it the euphemism treadmill. Other folks might call it, derisively, “political correctness.” But this is how language works: It reflects the relationships between speakers and groups. These descriptors will be in flux as long as our orientations to each other keep changing, which suggests that the treadmill isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.
Pinker elaborates on this theme in his book The Blank Slate.
The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long. Names for minorities will continue to change as long as people have negative attitudes toward them. We will know that they have achieved mutual respect when the names stay put.”
People may think that they have to be on their guard all the time to avoid offending others and sometimes take the safe route of not talking about these issues at all, which does not seem helpful either. I think that tone and attitude are really important elements. It is usually quite obvious from the context whether you are talking about people and events in a respectful way and people usually take that into account in the way they respond and will not take umbrage for minor missteps. They may cringe a little bit inside and, if they know you well, may be kind enough to set you straight, but they will not get angry. Unless of course they are looking to pick a fight, which unfortunately can happen in political discussions.
Back in 2011, Jon Stewart And Larry Wilmore had one of their great discussions about race that touched on euphemisms.
(This clip aired on January 11, 2011. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)