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Euphemizing Race February 3, 2007

Posted by federalist in Language.

There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.  – Theodore Roosevelt

We have an amusing history of trying to euphemize references to the race and sub-culture of the descendants of American slaves.  Nobody pales referring to “whites” or “Caucasians,” but the analogous terms “black” and “Negro” have become somewhat taboo.  James Taranto highlights the conundrum for today’s polite society:

The term African-American–which Jesse Jackson put forward as a replacement for black some two decades ago–is less precise when referring to the descendants of people whose ancestors were brought to America in bondage centuries ago. One of the horrors of slavery is that it largely, and involuntarily, sundered the connection between slaves and their ancestral homeland; and a change in terminology cannot erase this fact of history.

But the usage in the Times story makes things even more confusing. Apparently African-American now refers to both the descendants of slaves and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa (though presumably only dark-skinned ones; it is still, as far as we know, politically incorrect to refer to Teresa Heinz Kerry, a white Mozambique native, as “African-American”). Black, at least if Debra Dickerson has her way, refers only to the descendants of slaves.

What, then, do we call members of South Africa’s formerly oppressed racial majority? After African-American became the politically correct term for black, we recall hearing stories (perhaps apocryphal) of copy-editors changing references to this group so that they read, for instance, “South Africa’s African-American majority.” Politically correct language often does more to obscure than to clarify–but maybe that’s the idea.

Granted, race and culture are nebulous concepts.  But they are still real concepts, which circumlocution will not abolish.



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