The following, lengthy response, was sparked by a passage in an article by Runoko Rashidi about the Jamaican J.A Rogers (1883-1996):
"Despite his light complexion and mulatto background, Rogers bitterly discovered that Black people were all treated the same, no matter the complexion."
The passage disturbed me because it seemed to imply that the darker blacks deserve discrimination and prejudice but the lighter ones should expect to be better treated. It is just this attitude which condones and promotes racism.
SERIOUS ISSUES: The Power of Words (by ??? - I wish I knew!)
Some people worry a bit about which words are okay to use when they're talking about 'race'. Most people know words which are meant to be insulting, which are meant to put people down, but aren't so sure about other words.
Take someone who has a mother who is black and a father who is white. At one time they would have been called a 'half-caste' but this is now usually thought to be a bit insulting. 'Mixed race' was used next, but nowadays most people in this situation seem to prefer 'dual heritage'.
The old playground rhyme: 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me' is not true - anyone who has been called names they don't like knows that. But how do we know which names and words will hurt? The best test is to ask.
The people who ought to decide whether a name or 'label' is okay (or not) are the people who the name is used for, the people who have to wear the label.
Words which people generally think are okay: :
People with roots in Africa or the Caribbean generally prefer this word to describe themselves (though some older people may not). Of course they are not really black like shoes can be black, but then 'white' people are not really white, are they? One of the reasons the word 'black' is preferred is that in the past people were often taught that black=bad or evil, and many people now want to say that there is nothing bad or evil about dark skin and that they are proud of it. The phrase 'black is beautiful' became the slogan of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that took place in America, led by the black civil rights activities: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Some people with Asian roots call themselves 'black' but most don't.
This is the term people with roots in the Caribbean tend to prefer, as an alternative to 'black'. They prefer it to what they used to be called, which was 'West Indian'. It is also preferred to ‘Afro-Caribbean’ because abbreviations have negative associations, eg. Jap, Jew.
This is the most general word for people with roots or family connections in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. You aren't likely to annoy anyone by using it.
Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese etc.
If you know someone has roots or family connections in one of these places then one of these words is fine, though people can be touchy if you kind of suggest they are not really British when they think they are. If you had a friend with an Italian name because her Italian grandparents moved to Britain in 1950, would you call her Italian or British? Perhaps you would not be sure, perhaps it might depend on whether she felt a bit Italian herself, spoke Italian, went to an Italian-speaking Catholic church?
Roots or family connections in...
This is a useful expression. Taking India as an example, some people in Britain came here from India in the past few years (not many, actually); some people have been here forty years, others (almost everyone under the age of 25) were born here. In this mixture some have Indian passports, most have British passports and most know no other home other than Britain. They are British, but they have roots or family connections in India.
This is a funny phrase because it's often used in quite a vague way. Actually, you will find that people often use it when they mean black and Asian people, though ethnic has nothing to do with colour. The Irish in Britain are a minority ethnic group. You could say Welsh people are an ethnic group.
Muslim, Sikh, Hindu etc.
Sometimes a person's religion is more important to them than their family's roots, so it is sometimes better to describe them as a Sikh (for example) than as an Indian (because they were born and raised in England).
Words which people don't like much
An old-fashioned word which seems to want to avoid saying 'black'. White people are often more comfortable with it than, say, 'black ......'
This simply means someone who has moved their home from one country to another. It is often disliked because most of Britain's black and Asian people are not immigrants, they were born here. British people who moved their homes from here to somewhere else (like Australia, America, India or Africa) were usually called 'settlers'. Funny that.
Sometimes people use these words as a shortened form of the full word, as an abbreviation. Pakistanis and Chinese people hate it. More often, Paki is used on purpose as a general, insulting word for anyone with Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi roots, and then it's just as insulting as the range of other words which most people know (so there's no need to spell them out here).
The following article was written by me:
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The poem ‘Half caste’ by John Agard explores a response to being called a half-caste. The poet, being of mixed parentage, had experienced such encounters after immigrating to England, from Guyana.
The term ‘half-caste’ is offensive and derogatory because of the attitudes that lurk behind the term. It suggests being incomplete, unfinished, not really belonging – half this, half that. The preferred terms are: mixed race, of mixed-parentage, of mixed heritage though many mixed-race people themselves, especially in communities with few black people, still use the term ‘half-caste’.
The term ‘half-caste arose from the times of slavery when white people defined and labelled black people. The white slave owners didn’t care that the slaves had names when they were stolen away from the families and their homelands. The slaves were given the names of their slave owners, to show who they belonged to eg. Mr. Clay’s slaves were all given the surname Clay. Since those times black people have struggled to define themselves and use terms that they feel comfortable with. This movement was very strong in the 1950s and 60s when many black people threw off their ‘slavery names’ and adopted African names. The most famous example is the black American boxer, Muhammad Ali. He’d been born with the name Cassius Clay.
The speaker of the poem could get angry & feel violent but that would not encourage those who use the term half-caste to actually stop and listen to him. Instead the persona (speaker of the poem) takes an ironic view of the offensive term. He encourages those who would call him half-caste to really consider the connotations of the word & to consider why such a term is used only when referring to mixed race people. If the term half-caste is really so inoffensive why is it that we don’t refer to half-caste weather, half-caste painting or half-caste musical scores?
The repetition of ‘Explain yuself/Wha yu mean/when yu say half-caste” is a challenge but it doesn’t come across aggressively because of the absurdity of the examples. But are they really so ridiculous? Perhaps they only seem ridiculous because we would never think to refer to the weather, painting or music as half-caste. But why not?
The persona then goes on to imply that if he’s half caste then he must, surely, be only half formed, because he’s not fully cast, or made. Therefore he has only half an ear, half an eye, one leg, etc.
The poem ends with a more direct attack on those who would call him half-caste. It is they who are the half formed people because they are unable to see that he is a full, not a half-caste man. The speaker invites this abuser to come back in a more open-minded manner & then the real learning an understanding, between people, can take place.
In the poem ‘Half caste’ the poet can afford to use humour because I feel there is a real sense of self-confidence & self-acceptance. The speaker is so self-confident that he feels no need to use Standard English to get across his ideas. He is happy to express himself in his West Indian accent and dialect, often using phonetic writing to make this clear. For example ‘you’ becomes ‘yu’ to indicate the way in which a West Indian would pronounce the word. There is no attempt to hide or disguise what he is. If understanding is to be reached the abuser has to be prepared to make the effort to understand the speaker’s language. The speaker knows who he is & what he is. Words can’t hurt him. The ignorance of others will never shake his self-confidence.
Overall there is a sense of pity for the people who use the term ‘half-caste’ without realising the horrible history of the word. There is also pity for the small-minded people who feel the need to belittle others by name-calling. He’d like to see such small-minded people become ‘whole’ so he recommends that they “come back tomorrow/[…] wid de whole of [their] mind’ so that real learning & understanding can take place.
Some people feel that the poem’s message may not be taken seriously because of the humourous, exaggerated style used by the poet. However it is possible to see the power & strength that lies behind the flippancy of ‘Half caste’. Persuasion is often better than force.
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