I turned expectantly to my mother, to whom the question was addressed. I couldn’t wait to find out which of my friends was colored. Had Paul fallen into a vat of purple paint? Had Steve suddenly broken out in green spots?
“His name is Chris Jones,” was Mom’s reply. I was confused. I’d just been with Chris a few minutes earlier, and there was no color on him. He was certainly colorful… he was a few months older than me, he was quicker-witted, louder and more daring. But definitely not colored.
His mother was different from mine, too. For one thing, Mom only smacked her own kids. Chris’ mom would smack any kid within reach who got out of line, me included. She also had a louder laugh than my mom, and more colorful expressions. For example, I learned from her that Chris' room looked like a "cyclone-struck-it," and it was several years before I discovered that that was actually three separate words. Being a word guy, even at an early age, I was delighted with such colorful expressions. But she wasn’t colored, either.
“Why did she say Chris is colored? He’s not colored.”
I had waited until Mom and I were alone. I knew the looks on Mom’s face well enough to know that asking about this while still in the presence of the questioner would have been tantamount to talking back to an adult, one of the worst offenses.
“’Colored’ is a term some people use for negroes,” she replied. “It is impolite, and I don’t ever want to hear you using it.” Okay, good enough for me. Except…
“What’s a negro?”
It took some doing, since I’d never noticed the various gradations of melatonin in people’s skin, but Mom was finally able to explain to me what a negro was.
By the mid- sixties, Stokely Carmichael had convinced the American public that “negro” was just as insulting as “colored,” and advised people to
‘say it loud: I’m Black, and I’m proud.’
For the next couple decades, “black” was a perfectly acceptable term – in fact, the only acceptable term, in America, for people with genetically dark skin and negroid features. Then in 1988,Jesse Jackson decided unilaterally that "black" was an insult, and started referring to people of his race as “African American.” Political correctness being what it is, the phrase caught on, so thoroughly in fact that when some Algerian terrorists slaughtered several people in the office of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper a couple months ago, oh-so-politically-correct news commentator Chris Cuomo described one of them as "African American," then was corrected by his fellow commentator: “Not American, a man, er, of African descent.” You can watch the video of that exchange here.
Why am I pondering all this now? As I write this, Baltimore is sweeping up the wreckage of a race riot, the most recent in a string of violence that stretches back to Ferguson, or perhaps even back to the shooting of Trayvon Martin three years ago.
Jesse Jackson did no one any favors by coining that phrase“African American.” But then Jackson, like his partner in crime Al Sharpton, doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about improving race relations. If Jackson or Sharpton have taught us anything about race, it’s that, whenever racial violence breaks out, the most dangerous place to be is standing in between them and the nearest TV camera.
What was Jackson thinking? ‘African American’ isn’t like, say, Polish-American. Polish-American describes a person living in America who was born in Poland, or whose parents or perhaps, pushing it, grandparents were born in Poland. If you grew up in Oregon, descended from parents and grandparents who grew up in Oregon or Kansas or wherever, who descended from your great-grandparents who moved from Poland back in the 1800s, you are unlikely to describe yourself as a Polish-American unless your last name is still Polish. My own lineage in this country goes back three generations. It includes people from England, Germany, and Australia. If I die in police custody, as Freddie Gray did last week in Baltimore, I seriously doubt that the news report will read:
‘African American police officer kills English-German-Australian-American man.’
Africa is a continent, not a country. Charlize Theron and Elon Musk are African Americans.Trevor Richards, a pale skinned 16-year old student who had moved here from South Africa threw his hat into the ring for the award for Distinguished African American Student of the Year and was expelled from school!
They were born in South Africa and now live here.
Calling someone African American because of their skin color is actually pejorative. Racists persist in using insulting terms for black people that include references to jungles and spears. What continent do you most associate with jungles and spears? Some soldiers returning from the middle east refer to their enemies with pejorative terms that include references to sand, camels, and turbans. Iraqis I’ve met in this country describe themselves as Persians, not ‘Mideast Desert Americans.’
Suppose Charlize Theron and I hold up a liquor store. Should the dispatcher tell officers to be on the lookout for a tall blonde African American woman and a fat bald English-German-Australian-American man?
If a suspect is accosted by a police officer, refuses to cooperate, tries to take the officer’s gun away, gets shot in the process and dies, that’s news. But, in our world, it isn’t enough news. The media insists that we need to know that the officer had a pinkish complexion and the unarmed suspect was more coffee-hued. And as long as the media continues to supply those extra details, as long as the audience feels that those extra details are needed to make the story newsworthy, there will be a race problem.
I heard a news commentator yesterday claim that Obama was the best possible president to deal with the racial unrest in Baltimore, because he is, and I quote, “a person of color,” more than fifty years after my mom told me that was impolite.
Now how is that politically acceptable, but calling him a ‘colored person’ is not?