wholepeace

On Naming Co-cultures

In PeaceAble on November 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm

The words we have for things are how we know them. But words have both denotative and connotative meanings and both those meanings change over time, with some denotative meanings disappearing over time, and some connotative meanings taking on the force of denotation. This has implications for how our names for things like race, ethnicity, social class, and so forth affect our ability to deal with important issues.
I have a friend and former colleague who was born and raised in South Africa. He came to this country as an adult, obtained citizenship and still lives here. Technically is he not an African/American? Problem is that he’s caucasian; which is to say that at some point in the distant past his ancestors may have come from the Caucasus region in Europe.
I had a student once who was dark skinned and had a distinctly non-English accent. I supposed that her family had come from the Indian sub-continent, but her name was Northern European. The question of her background came up at some point (I don’t know why, perhaps in a discussion of scholarships) and she told me that she was Norwegian. She had been adopted as a newborn and raised in Norway. Her language was Norwegian. She considered herself as Norwegian/American. Would we want to re-classify her as Indian/American?
A man, whom I read about, has grandparents who came here from the Caribbean. He has never known anything but the U.S.A. as his home and culture. He says that he dislikes being referred to as African/American because it doesn’t accurately describe his actual heritage in any meaningful way and he simply wants to be known as an American.
I have always considered myself, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to be a “Mongrel/American.” My European heritage is decidedly British Isles as far back as my family’s genealogy has allowed me to see, but even though my mother’s family was “purely” Irish, I would never say that I am an Irish/American. I have a certain fondness and affinity for the Irish, but I don’t share enough of the cultural heritage or history to truly identify as an Irishman. I also have a smattering of First Peoples ancestry, specifically Penobscot, but again I share too little understanding of that heritage to say that I am “Native/American.” As for “Caucasian,” I’m not even sure that has standing as a distinct culture at all outside of the Caucasus. We use it simply to mean that we are fair-skinned and have ancestry somewhere in Europe.
Because I believe that it is a good thing to be able to acknowledge, honor and even celebrate the many ways in which we are different from one another, I would wish that we could begin to explore new ways of naming those differences that are more accurate and useful, and perhaps don’t have the connotative baggage of the old terms. I used the term First Peoples above in describing my heritage because it is a term many of the continent’s tribes have chosen to replace “Indian” or “native American” because their real heritage is not from India, and “America” is a name imposed on the continent by Europeans. It’s still a little awkward to work it into the flow of discourse, but I like it as a descriptor. The full term, of course, is “First Peoples of the Continent;” much too cumbersome for colloquial use.
Some differences, of course, lend themselves to clearer classification than others; but even there the language can get confusing. Do you prefer “Jewish/American” over “Hebrew/American?” How does it help us to know that someone is “Muslim/American” if we have little or no understanding of what that means and can’t distinguish between Sunnis and Shiites and don’t know that there both conservative and liberal communities within the Muslim faith?
Other differences, like African/American, are so vague as to obscure really interesting cultural and ethnic heritage that is more specific. When we say that someone is “Hispanic,” we don’t mean that she is from Spain, that would be “Spanish/American,” we mean that she speaks, as her first language, one of the many variations of the Spanish language. But that obscures the real cultural and ethnic differences between Colombians, Cubans, Brazilians, Mexicans, and so on.
Some distinctions have arisen from the colloquial terms that really don’t describe the differences at all, and create unintended side-effects. Recently, Hallmark changed the word “gay” to “fun” in the lyrics of “Deck the Halls” on a sweater they are marketing for the holidays. I’m not sure why they felt the change was necessary. The word “gay” still means light-hearted and celebratory. Every time we use it, we do not have to be referring to homosexuals (particularly male homosexuals). Perhaps Hallmark thought that changing the word would make the sweater more attractive to people who are uncomfortable with homosexuality, and would avoid double-entendres. But in making the change, they have suggested that there is something wrong with the word and with its possible interpretation. This further stigmatizes both the word and the sexual identity. Would they produce a sweater that sings of a “snowy Christmas” because “white Christmas” might be interpreted as a racist distinction? Of course not; the analogy is frivolous.
So what might we do instead, if we are to genuinely recognize each other and honor each other as human beings, with all our distinctions and differences? Perhaps it is time, first of all, to take such distinctions out of our discourse except where the differences make a difference, and then to find language that honors those differences. If I am hiring someone and want to know what she is bringing to the position in terms of special perspectives or experiences, then instead of a single list of essentially useless categories, why not have a line where the applicant gets to identify herself in whatever way she chooses, using the terminology that she feels applies and she wants considered? Is this a woman? Is she fair-skinned or dark skinned? Does she have a particular cultural heritage such as First Peoples or Italian or Protestant or German-speaking, with which she strongly identifies and believes to be an asset? Is it important to her that she is in a same-sex relationship? We already ask candidates to say something about their hobbies and interests and associations, why not let them choose what else to reveal?
We (meaning those who fit the cultural norm: fair-skinned males of European descent, for example) might learn to respect the names others choose for themselves, and work with them to find appropriate words. We will probably find that we don’t need nearly so many terms as we suppose to define our differences, and that the things that make us alike are far more important in the long run.

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