I’m all for trying to be civil and respectful to people. As the old saying goes, “To get respect, you must first give respect.” In my youth, my father, who was a compassionate humanitarian, regularly sent donations to an Indian reservation in New Mexico. The tribe responded by sending various trinkets, one of which was a wise slogan printed on a small stand. I kept it on my dresser because I thought it was a very worthwhile rule: “I will not judge my brother until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” (And please, if you’re reading this and thinking I should have used the politically correct term, Native Americans, instead of Indians, you’re wasting your time with me. I had a very good friend, David Walks-As-Bear, who was a member of the Kispoko Shawnee Tribe, and grew up on the Rez. I once asked him if he preferred to be called a Native American. His reply was simple: “Yeah, I’m a Native American, all, right. And so are you. We were both born here, right? The difference is, you’re White, and I’m an Indian.” That was good enough for me. I might add that Bear, as I called him, was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. I gave him a cameo part in my short story, “Lost Weekend.”)
But let me get back on topic. As I said, political correctness has long been present in our society, and rightly so. While one of our fundamental rights is freedom of speech, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes clarified, “This right does not give one the right to yell, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.” Words can hurt, and I’m firmly behind thinking before you speak. Another old saying that applies here is, “Please engage brain before opening mouth.” It’s essential to be civil and not use words that can hurt others, but it’s wise to remember that our language is not static. It’s always in transition to some extent, thus certain terms come and go, and others fall into disapproval. Let’s jump back to the old television show, Room 222, which starred Lloyd Haynes as history teacher, Pete Dixon. For its time, the show attempted to cover some controversial topics, and for the most part, did a credible job. In the opening show, idealistic student teacher, Miss Johnson, played by Karen Valentine, expressed her admiration of her assigned mentor, Mr. Dixon.
“I think it’s so significant that you’re Black,” the idealistic young student-teacher said.
When Haynes lifted an eyebrow and said, “Oh?” Valentine replied, “Do you prefer Black, or Negro, or colored?” Haynes answered with a benign smile, and said, “I’ve always preferred Pete.”
Darn, that was a good show.
During this time, it was customary to refer to black Americans as “Negroes or colored.” During the civil rights era of the turbulent 60’s, Blacks expressed resentment over these words, and the preferred term of “Black” began to be used. Ironically, this word had been used during the 1920’s and 30’s by such writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and was later discarded as unacceptable. Nevertheless, Black became the preferred law of the land, so to speak. I can recall the standard racial designations on government forms being changed from the original, Caucasian, Negro, and Asian, or Pacific Islander, to White, Black and Asian. These categories were used to track statistics of various things, one of them being racial classifications on the census and NCIC. They left large gaps, which the government began trying to fill. In the early 1970’s, during the Nixon administration, the term “Hispanic” came into usage to cover Spanish-speaking people, primarily from Central and South America. This struggle to be all-inclusive raised several questions, however, when it was pointed out that Portuguese is spoken not only in Portugal, but in Brazil, as well. The term Latino was more favored in the Western United States, but it could also be argued that Latin was originally spoken in Rome. Does this mean that Italians should also be considered “Latinos?”
I’ll leave that question to be answered by those with much more wisdom than I. I’m sure that as we continue to evolve into a more diversified society, more categories and subcategories will emerge. There was push a few years ago to change things from Black, to African American, and White to European American. While the latter has generated little popular traction, the former seems to have caught the crest of the wave of current political correctness. I asked a Black person I know how she felt about the term, and her answer was reminiscent of Bear’s response: “I’m not from Africa. I was born here.” She prefers the term, “Black.”
So I’ll leave things at that.
As time goes by, I’m sure things will change again. Our language, and our society, is constantly evolving, and sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.