A morning ‘rant’ about a borderline word

Maybe that headline’s wrong. Maybe it’s not a borderline word. Maybe it’s clearly over the border. I don’t know. Y’all decide.

A friend had a bad start to her day this morning, and vented a bit.

I should explain that the friend is black, and she works for a large organization in the Midlands. That’s all I’ll say, since she asked me not to identify her. Here is her self-described “rant,” with all the installments run together:

I can’t even say Good Tuesday bc I’m starting with a rant.
Staff meeting today and co-worker refers to a church as the “colored” church. Really? How do u respond to that?
I know that’s how some of my coworkers think, but they have to verbalize it every so often. Lack of motivation is bad enough.
Ignorance is another story. That is all. Rant is complete.
I don’t even know if he’d get why I’m upset.

I’ll bet he wouldn’t.

In fact, as a Clueless White Guy myself, I really don’t know how my black friends would react if I used the word “colored.” Of course, this not being 1955, it would never occur to me. It’s so…

Well, the first word that strikes me is “anachronistic.” It makes me wonder, first, how old this guy is. I’m getting on up there, and while I remember the old folks using this word in my childhood, I don’t think I had occasion to use it myself. (No, wait! Maybe once… Oh, it’s too long ago to quantify… I was a tiny kid at the time.) For the old white folks, it was then the “polite” word they used to describe black folks.

By the time I was aware that there was a such a thing as demographic designations, the official, universally-approved word — if you had to refer to a person’s “race,” which I avoided and still avoid when possible (I was reluctant to do so in my second paragraph above, but it seemed essential to the story) — was “negro.” Then, it was “black.” Which I resisted. I preferred, if forced to refer to race, to use a word that sounded clinical, and technical, and less likely to divide people on an emotional level. “Black” sounded to me like, well, like we weren’t fellow human beings. Black and white are opposites, and have nothing in common. It seemed to me, as a teenager, a polarizing word.

But eventually I adopted it. My acceptance was eased by the fact that it was only one syllable. Force me to acknowledge race, and I’d get through it more quickly and move on. I liked that part of it. So I got used to it.

And I’ve stuck with it. I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile to the seven-syllable “African-American,” which is even longer than the “Afro-American” that was briefly popular in my youth. It seems to dwell WAY too long on something that I believe unnecessarily divides people. The only thing worse than that would be “European-American” — eight syllables — which thankfully has never caught on with anyone. (It’s so irrelevant. I never knew a single ancestor who even knew an ancestor who came from Europe. What would be the point?)

Yet, you’ll hear be use “African-American” in an extended discussion of race. Mainly because I get tired of saying “black” after awhile. (When you’re an editorial page editor in South Carolina, or a member of the Columbia Urban League board as I was for a decade, you end up having a LOT of extended discussions of race.)

But it has never occurred to me to say “colored.”

Did that guy think it was cool because he’d heard some of more politically conscious black people say “people of color?” Maybe. But you know, I’m not sure white people are licensed to say that. I’ve heard them try, and it sounds extremely stilted and phony — even more stilted than when black speakers say it. It’s like listening to people who learned a foreign language as adults. The pronunciation may be approximately correct, but the accent is all wrong.

“Colored” used to be a euphemism. Was it for this guy today? Did he use it just because my friend was present? What would he have said otherwise?

Maybe he went home today congratulating himself on his tact. Do you think?

5 thoughts on “A morning ‘rant’ about a borderline word

  1. Steven Davis

    Just a play on words… like Cain, I use “black” and not African-American.

    This reminds me of Sunday morning when I had the television on and it was on WIS. There was a black woman talking about how her store supplies “cranial prosthetics” to cancer patients. What??? That got my attention and was expecting to see fake heads. Turns out she was talking about “wigs”.

  2. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I’m not sure how anyone today under the age of 90 who hadn’t been stuck in a time warp would think “colored” would be appropriate.

    As for folks 90 and over, I tend to cut them slack. I’ve never actually heard anyone use “colored” in reference to a minority, but I figure if you spent the better part of your life in the Jim Crow era, some things may be irreversible.

  3. martin

    You reckon the poor guy thinks it’s OK because the CP in NAACP stands for colored people? Of course, NAAAAP or NAABP just would not fly. Why has the name never been changed to reflect current usage? I can picture scads of people sitting around a table trying hard to come up with something other than colored people. Or,is there some appreciation for the history of the era when the organization was founded?

    Is colored now like the N word…fine and dandy for blacks to use, but mortal sin for a white?

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