What a minefield language has become since it got mixed up with identity politics.
In her acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards last year, Viola Davis – named outstanding lead actress in a TV drama series for her performance in How to Get Away with Murder – talked of herself as a "woman of colour".
I wish we could make up our minds once and for all.
Fifty years ago, black Americans were referred to as Negroes. “Coloured people” (or “colored people”, in American spelling) was a more formal alternative.
“Negro” and “coloured” have long since ceased to be acceptable terms, although ironically the latter term is retained by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading black civil rights group.
There’s nothing intrinsically offensive about “Negro”, which is simply Spanish for black, but it fell out of usage because of its association with the highly pejorative "nigger", used by white racists.
Similarly, “coloured” ceased to be used because it was seen as the language of a time when black people were regarded as inferior and subservient.
I was reminded of this when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, several years ago (it's located in the former motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated) and saw signs from the 1950s saying “Colored entrance only” and “Colored Seated in Rear” – grim echoes of a time when racial segregation was enforced.
As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the mid to late-1960s, “black” became the preferred term. Its adoption coincided with the emergence of the black consciousness and Black Power movements.
Nina Simone sang in a 1969 hit about being young, gifted and black. It was an affirmation of black identity and pride.
Then the 1980s rolled around and we started hearing a new term: African-American.
“Black” became not so much unacceptable as unfashionable. African-American was a bit of a mouthful (it’s hard to imagine Simone singing “young, gifted and African-American”), but the mainstream media, anxious to avoid accusations of racial insensitivity, fell into line.
It seemed the issue was finally sorted. Then along came Viola Davis last year, and suddenly we had to reckon with the phrase “people of colour”.
There’s a slightly different nuance here. “People of colour” doesn’t refer only to black Americans but to all non-whites, who are supposedly bound together by the common experience of racism.
According to Wikipedia, “people of colour” is preferred to “non-white” because rather than defining people by what they are not (i.e. white), it frames the issue in positive terms.
I get that. Nonetheless, I wish the arbiters of politically correct language would settle on something and stick with it. As it is, right-thinking people have to keep adapting their vocabulary to keep up with the shifting fashions of identity politics.
Besides, I’m left scratching my head over the distinction between “coloured people”, which isn’t acceptable, and “people of colour”, which is. It’s all very confusing.
We have been through all this before. “Queer” was once a term of derision for gay men, but now the word is proudly embraced. Being different from the mainstream, once seen as a stigma, is now something to be celebrated.
That’s what identity politics is all about: minority groups defining themselves by their point of difference and using it to get political leverage.
Nowadays, no one but an out-and-out racist questions the right of black people – or people of any race, for that matter – to be referred to in a non-discriminatory way. But it’s almost as if there’s a race to be first with the latest politically correct terminology.
It’s a game of linguistic one-upmanship in which you risk being scorned as some sort of bottom-feeding reactionary if you don’t keep up.
New Zealanders, being essentially a liberal lot, have demonstrated over time that they’re willing to change their vocabulary where it’s clearly discriminatory or stereotypes people.
“Hori” was once considered unobjectionable as a synonym for a Maori (the Howard Morrison Quartet even used it in the song My Old Man’s An All Black) but is now rarely, if ever, heard. Similarly, “Japs”, “chinks” and “Chinaman” have been consigned to the linguistic dustbin because of their demeaning connotations.
But the politics of language can be perplexing. For example, we no longer describe people who are physically or intellectually impaired as “handicapped”. That’s verboten. “Disabled”, however, is permissible.
The distinction between “handicapped” and “disabled” seems purely semantic. But for whatever reason, one is deemed to be derogatory and the other isn’t.
It wasn’t always like this. We know that “handicapped” used to be an acceptable term because it’s the “H” in IHC, which originally stood for Intellectually Handicapped Children.
Similarly, CCS – as in CCS Disability Action – originally stood for Crippled Children’s Society. But try using the word “crippled” today and see how far you get.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail.