A couple years ago, a student was working with me on a history paper. She was a regular and I had worked with her often. She always seemed smart and nice. This day she asked me, “What do you call me?” I hesitated and tried to glance at her folder. I figured I had called her by the wrong name. I am absolutely horrible with names. But, that didn’t seem right because I virtually never use people’s names (this is a direct result of being self consciously bad with names). So, I asked her, “What do you mean?”
She answered, “What do you call people who look like me?”
I laughed. “Honestly,” I said, “I do everything I can to not call you anything.”
It was her turn to ask what I meant. I kind of awkwardly explained that when I was a kid, the common terms were black and white. No one referred to themselves as African American or Caucasian. This is the vocabulary I internalized and what feels natural, but I was told as a teenager that black isn’t the right term, it is African American. I still think African American sounds weird, but I don’t want to offend anyone, so I try to avoid race labels all together.
She then volunteered that she hates the phrase African American. It turns out she was born and raised in Connecticut, but her parents are from Haiti. They take pride in their Haitian heritage, the French language, the food, etc. They have never been to Africa and feel no connection to it. She feels that the phrase African American misrepresents who she is.
This conversation did two things to me. First, it made me double down on my whole avoid race labels at all costs position. Second, it made me think about labels differently. I used to think the labels were necessary in order to have a conversation. How can we talk about racial segregation without labeling which people belong to which race? My own discomfort with the labels was just something I needed to get over if I wanted to participate in the dialogue.
Now I’ve changed my mind. I think the labels actually hinder communication. Language is an organic, living thing. In order to work, it needs to be fed from the bottom. But the politically correct labels come from the academy. They are handed down from above. Labels like African American, Privileged, Ally, Gentrification, etc. are not natural, and that means they can only be used self-consciously. Self-conscious speech is rarely honest speech. That is what hinders communication.*
What we need is natural, honest speech. We need to stop worrying about what we call each other (although it is always a good idea to be respectful). If people are victims of discrimination, that is a problem and that should be our focus. We need to stop caring about what we call the victims and start trying to help them.
*I don’t want to get into it here, but the specific labels used by academics have a tendency to polarize and alienate which is also a problem.