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.

Submit a Letter to the Editor

The Town Crier welcomes letters to the editor on current events pertinent to Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View. Write to us at 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022, Attn: Editor, or email editor Bruce Barton at bruceb@latc.com. Because editorial space is limited, please confine letters to no more than 200 words. Include a phone number for verification purposes. Anonymous letters will not be printed.

You can also have your say right here at losaltosonline.com – scroll to the bottom of any story to add a comment. 

Paid Political Endorsement letters

The Town Crier offers the option of pre-paid political endorsement letters for candidates in the Nov. 3 election.

Letters must support candidates – no submissions containing exclusively negative content will be printed.

Authors’ names are required for publication. Letters will be published in the order they are received, and we will accept only one letter per author per campaign. Please limit letters to no more than 200 words.

The cost is $150 per endorsement letter for either print or online, $200 for both. The deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesdays for inclusion in the following week’s Town Crier. To submit endorsement letters and for more information, email Howard Bischoff at howardb@latc.com.

election news button

Schools »

Schools
Read More

Sports »

sports
Read More

People »

people
Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

photoshelter
Browse and buy photos