A Piece of My Mind: Navigating the minefield of words describing races

When I was a child, my parents moved us from Palo Alto to a small city of about the same size in the segregated South. (It was a bad move, but that’s another story.) My parents were from a part of the country where you were more likely to see an antelope walking down the street than a person of African descent. I had to learn some new words, and meanings of words.

There was one word that could be said on the playground if you were using “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” to choose sides for a game, but if you used it anywhere else around my parents, you risked getting your mouth washed out with soap.

There was another word that sounded almost the same but was used only by grown-ups when they were speaking seriously, and you could almost hear the capital letter when they said it.
The ordinary word used in polite conversation, and on rest room doors, and over water fountains, was “colored.”

Usage of this word to label persons of African descent is now archaic, surviving only, as far as I can tell, in the NAACP, almost never spelled out as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The preferred word today is “Black,” capitalized as though it refers to a geographic region or a nationality.

When “black” first came into common usage to describe people back in the 1960s, it sounded rude to me, as would using “red” to describe a person descended from pre-Columbian Americans, or “yellow” to describe a person of Chinese descent.

Which leads to that awkward expression “person of color.” Because “colored” historically referred to those people now called “Black,” a new term was needed that would be more inclusive of people who are not of European descent and appearance. This includes those formerly called “Indians” who are now “Indigenous,” also capitalized. It also includes people originating from south of the U.S. border who were “Mexicans” or “Cubans” in my youth, and then became “Hispanics.” This word has now been discarded as being too deferential to the genocidal Conquistadores. “Latino” was then current, but this word recently has been interpreted as sexist and supplanted by “Latinx.”

Mysteriously, “persons of color” does not seem to refer to people of Asian descent. Somehow they seem to have escaped the baggage associated with having endured the prejudice, poverty and exclusion other immigrants have carried for generations. But I am entering a minefield, I know. Tomorrow may bring some new terms, some new usage, and all I have written here may be outdated and even shameful. Language is slippery, and morphs without notification.

Maybe we should all just call each other by our names.

Allyson Johnson is a Los Altos resident. For more information, visit allysonjohnson.com.

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