Monday, May 2, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name: The Problem with 'African-American'

How do you know in any given place who are the marginalized, the oppressed, or the minority? Look for the groups who change titles every five to ten years or call themselves something different than what outsiders call them. What does that have to do with anything? The ones in power decide what the ones without power are named.

And that does not even need to be directly. A marginalized or stigmatized group will eventually have its name associated with the negative things people think of that group. It's gonna happen. They're marginalized. No power means that people won't know very much about them. They won't be seen as individuals because they are segregated to their own communities, e.g. mental hospital (In this case, even where they live has a name change). The majority does not have any contact with these people unless one or more of them does something newsworthy, and that usually means something negative. A black man is arrested for drug possession. A special ed child soils himself in class. A mentally ill woman harms someone else. So that's how the entire group is labeled. Addicts. Stupid. Violent.

These labels won't be challenged because the majority does not come in contact with these people often enough. And when they find someone of that group who isn't like that then that's just an exception. That one person was okay, but I've heard about tens of cases on the news or through a friend that were bad.

The stigma forms in people's mind and they start to avoid these people. But not just physically, but also mentally. They put up barriers that keep them from seeing the stigmatized people as anything other than part of a group who do bad things.

The title of that group now equals the bad qualities. Years after the group's name gains a bad connotation, people begin to realize that and decide that a name change is called for so that people will see them differently.

The problem is that people didn't perceive them negatively because of their name. They perceived them negatively because, as the ones in power, they don't have to see the people of this group as people, but as just a group. The negative things get sensationalized and added to the group's image and the positive things get ignored. I guess it's easier to think a stranger is capable of bad than good.

So the name is changed. From lame to handicapped to disabled, give or take a few names. From Negro to black to African American. All the while the negative stereotypes are transferred to the new name.

These name changes are a signal to weakness-- to powerlessness. They don't change people's thoughts. It's a problem that propagates itself. The problem being how people view the groups. What am I? Well, you see, I don't get to decide that. I'm in one of the marginalized groups so my identity is group first-- African American. My identity lets people know what I am not first and foremost. I'm not one of the ones in power, with a voice, in a majority, You know, one of the ones who matter.

Then people can associate me with what they think I am. No one has to go through the dirty and difficult experience of getting to know me. "I know you. You're just like those people I see on the 11 o'clock news, cursing and stoned while being pushed into the backs of police cars while handcuffed."

With those who know me though, I'm black. We're black. What we think of black is what we think of our fathers and grandmothers, of our friends and coworkers. That means it's positive first, negative second. That means being defined by what we are, not what we lack. But when I'm with other groups, I have to acknowledge what I'm not because I have to keep it in mind just to function. I can't go too long expecting to be treated one way when reality treats me another.

So then, amongst other groups, I'm African-American. You know, not really American and not really African. I have no place here and no place there. In the past, my ancestors were vaguely from some large and scary continent. That's probably where I get all those bad qualities. Or so 'they' say? Who will they say I am tomorrow?

No comments:

Post a Comment