Saturday, June 28, 2008

Politically Correct

In 1984, James Finn Garner's book of "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" was published. Titles, professions and ethnicities were gaining finely tuned verbiage and Garner managed to provide a plethora of options while poking fun at the absurdity of not calling the kettle black.

Yet, in real life, a speaker calling out the color of said utensil risks offending: a specific division of the human race; the manufacturer that chose the name "ebony;" and all kettle users that refer to the object's size and purpose rather than color.

Avoiding offensive phrasing is exhausting. Rather than looking at reality and the intent of the speaker, critics conclude that people are racist. People have become so conscious of being criticized they actually avoid any type of descriptive terms. A woman told me of a recent conversation she had with an acquaintance. The acquaintance mentioned a person and to clarify, my friend said, "Was she a black woman?" The acquaintance then said, "We don't refer to people like that." My question then is, how DO you refer to people?

What would happen if a crime victim couldn't use race as a way to describe their assailant?

Officer: "Can you describe the person that robbed the bank?"

Bank Teller: "I believe the person was male, or was dressed as a male. I mean, he, or maybe she, wore a loose fitting flannel shirt and jeans. I think the person had short hair, but maybe not because they were wearing a ball cap and the hair could have been tucked underneath. The person had rough hands from working hard but not all women have smooth hands."

Officer: "Did this person say anything? What kind of voice did they have?"

Bank Teller: "They just handed me a note."

Officer: "What else can you tell me about this person? Were they white? black? Indian?"

Bank Teller: "Well, officer, I'm sorry but I grew up in a home where we didn't use terms like that."

Officer: "Okay - so what terms DID you use?"

Bank Teller: "We only called people by their given names."

Officer: "So you wouldn't happen know the name of the robber would you?"

Bank Teller: "Oh, no, I guess I forgot to ask."

The debate over descriptive nouns continues with media outlets trying to find out what to call Barack Obama. They ask each other if he is black or should be considered mixed-race. One so-called expert classified as "African-American" stated Obama is "mixed."

Personally, I believe he is one of relatively few people that can accurately call themselves "African-American." I was taught that hyphenated ethnicity was used by people that were 1) from another country and settled in a new country; or 2) were born to parents of two different nationalities. So, a person coming from Italy and settling in America could be called "Italian-American" or a dad from Kenya and a mother from America (like Obama's parents) could produce an "African-American" child.

Oddly, the media reflects a public that stakes claims on celebrities. Mariah Carey's mother is a very fair-skinned white woman with blond hair and identified as Irish-American. Her father is Venezuelan and African-American. Yet her music and entourage reflects less diversity, demonstrating her identification as being black-American. Fans of color have been noted to appreciate her blackness while white fans seem to focus on her music. Why she has any fans, I don't know as I detest her random performance of scales and ear-busting high-Cs. I would save that discussion for another blog but I am not sure about wasting any more space on "Mimi."

I can not begin to fathom how people that are generations removed from another country can suddenly begin to claim allegiance to being another nationality. While I am proud that I have Dutch, German, English and American Indian heritages, I don't try to declare any nationality other than being completely "American."

Some would argue that identifying a person by their heritage or skin color is degrading. My belief is we should be able to proudly display who we are, but we should do so with accuracy. Describing ethnicity should be no different than identifying gender, hair length, clothing, height or eye color. Derogatory epithets are unnecessary, but to be "politically" correct, adjectives should have freedom within our vocabulary without fear of oppression.

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