The English language evolves quickly. New terms emerge and old ones die with remarkable speed, especially in our accelerated age. Changes in culture, technology, and entertainment are often the catalysts, but more and more, the pursuit of social justice is the cause.
The latter leads to what author Steven Pinker named the “euphemism treadmill.” One term is deemed offensive, so it is replaced with a new term, which, over time, is deemed offensive itself.
A good example of this comes from the field of mental health. Offended by hopelessly vague and unscientific terms like “crazy” and “madness,” early psychologists chose sterile, humane terms such as “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot.” But if you happened to visit a schoolyard any time after the Harding administration, you know it didn’t take long for kids to yell those well-meaning terms as they pantsed the kid with his tongue stuck to the flagpole.
To prevent hurt feelings, medical professionals dropped those words and coined “mental retardation,” which only sped up the euphemism treadmill. While some clinics still use that term, it has mostly been replaced by any number of euphemisms. “Mentally handicapped” was replaced with “mentally impaired” was replaced with “mentally challenged” was replaced with “developmentally disabled” until today, when several professionals have thrown up their hands and go with the hopelessly vague and unscientific term “behavioral wellness.” We’ve come a long way since “crazy.”
The treadmill only speeds up when you enter the modern Social Justice movement. If it were chartered today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would be taboo, but its definitional equivalent, the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color, would be applauded. NAACP bad; NAAPC good. Why, “PC” is right in the name!
But now even “PC” isn’t politically correct. The website Everyday Feminism published an article this week titled “4 Reasons ‘People of Color’ Isn’t Always the Best Choice of Words.”
Language is often one of the last forms of oppression to be challenged – because how do we tackle something so essential to how we communicate with the world and each other? But language is one of the most powerful ways to create change or uphold oppression for that very reason.
Diversity culture, or this push to challenge the societal norms that subconsciously support heteronormative whiteness at the cost of all others, could be responsible for how the term people of color can be used maliciously – albeit unintentionally…
Ironically, the trap of people of color can be permitted by the very people who identify as such – mainly by non-Black people of color, who in their efforts to raise awareness against oppression, continue to rely on exploitation and subconscious violence rooted in language.
Lately, language has pushed to better encompass the sensitivity and awareness needed to navigate within racial identity and ethnicity. But the term people of color – an umbrella term used to encompass everyone who identifies as someone from a non-white background – can be the easiest way for us to fall in the trap of “one size fits all” thinking.
And what’s worse, the term people of color can contribute to the violence that specific communities face every day in a white supremacist society.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are violence too.
The author — one Cameron G., an “emerging sex educator and professional fangirl from New Jersey” — says that white folk should refer to groups of people by their specific ethnic identity. But getting specific has its downsides since the most recent US Census form has categories for Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin; Black/African American/Negro; Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Other Asian; Native Hawaiian, Guamanian/Chamorro, Samoan, Other Pacific Islander; or “some other race.”
Replacing “POC” with “POHLSBAANAICFJKVOANHGCSOPISOR” is a touch unwieldy, even for Cameron G. As she closes her piece, she introduces a new term without even a cursory explanation of why it’s an improvement over the old.
We’re able to recognize that we have power in our unique identities, and be allies in supporting other communities of color against white supremacy and violence. However, we do more harm than good by lumping us all together under a forced umbrella of false equality.
Communities of color are powerful and worthy of being acknowledged specifically.
I look forward to Cameron G.’s 2017 thinkpiece, “4 Reasons ‘Communities of Color’ Isn’t Always the Best Choice of Words.”