Friday, January 22, 2016

Why Referents Like "The Blacks", "The Jews", "The Whites" Are Considered Racist

Edited by Azizi Powell

In two days I've come across two online examples of group referents preceded by "the" such as "The Blacks" and "The Whites".

The first example that I read was businessman and Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump's comment that "The Whites Don't Get BET Nominations". This was in response to some celebrities' announced boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards event because there were no Black nominees. is one article which led with that comment.

I read several articles about Donald Trump's comment. While some articles that reported this indicated that Donald Trump's comment was racist, none of them indicated why they reached that conclusion, and no bloggers who posted to those articles' discussion threads [at the time that I'm writing this post] commented about Trump's use of the term "the Whites".

Donald Trump has also used the term "the blacks" as noted in Jason Parham, 7/24/15
(2008) “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
The second use of such referents that I came across within the last two days was in an article about Jep Robertson and his wife adopting a Black boy. The Robertsons are part of the family featured in the "Duck Dynasty" television series.
"The adoption of Jules comes two years after family patriarch Phil made racist comments in an interview with GQ.
'I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once"...

'The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word!'

They were godly; they were happy. No one was singing the blues.'"
I added italics to highlight that phrase.

The ellipses in this quote were found in the article.
This post puts aside discussions about the boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards event, and also puts aside discussions about what Phil Robinson said or whether Jep Robertson and his wife should or should not have adopted a Black child, given the racial views of Jep's father and possibly Jep himself. Instead, I'm focusing on the use of the terms "The Blacks" and similar terms.

This post presents selected online comments about those referents that I've found from three blog posts that I've found on this subject. Most of these quotes were selected because I believe they better explain why I-and a number of other people-have problems with these types of referents.

I consider those group referents cringe worthy, problematic, if not racist because they consider everyone who is part of a large, heterogeneous population as one lumped together group for whom some generality is being made or being implied. That generality often is stereotypical, but need not be stereotypical for that referent to be off-putting.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

These quotes are presented in chronological order based on their posting dates within these specific articles or blog posts. I've assigned numbers for referencing purposes only.

From What was so offensive about "the blacks"? [47 responses total]

question posted by yalestar, October 3, 2004 11:07
1. "Oddball semantics question: Yesterday my wife and her mother were talking about chutney for some reason. Her mother remarked that she always thought that chutney was something that "the blacks" ate. Setting aside the fact that chutney is an Indian thing, what is so distasteful about mom-in-law's choice of words? [MI]
Now I've never known mom-in-law to espouse any particularly racist points of view before, and I don't think any were intended here. But the wife and I were both caught off guard by it, and are also finding ourselves pretty fascinated at the semantics at play here. For example, I don't think I would have given it a second thought if mom-in-law had said "the Greeks" or "the Swedes." But for some reason, hearing her say "the blacks" was very cringe-inducing.

So, what's the deal here? Why does saying "the blacks" sound so blunt and wrong? Or are we just reading too much into some colloquialism from yesteryear (mom-in-law grew up in rural Nebraska)?
2. posted by vacapinta at 11:20 AM on October 3, 2004
"Your mom-in-law was using a broad categorical to talk distantly about a group of people for which there exists some history of racial tension. In this case, she is using that same racial classification to make the reference.

Your mom-in-law may have been making an innocent statement but the phrase "The blacks..." has a bad history behind it and anyone not aware of this is either living in a cultural cave or simply insensitive.

Using "The Greeks.." I'd argue can sound bad too if used in an area where some tension exists. If I say "The Turks..." here in California nobody may think twice. But the same phrase used in European cities currently full of class-conflict and mild xenophobia, well, it may not be interpreted so well."

3. posted by dame at 11:34 AM on October 3, 2004
"To me it has something to do with the "the"—it seems to block off very squarely a group of others as Other. It has an air of "those people" to it; it implies a monolithic block of Not Us.

For that reason, I wouldn't say "the Jews" either; I'd say gefilte fish is a Jewish food or Jews eat gefilte fish. Likewise I'd say sushi is eaten by Japanese people.

Does that make sense?"

4. posted by coelecanth at 11:42 AM on October 3, 2004
"My theory is that it would be arrogant to presume to speak for all Greeks everywhere. When you say "the Greeks" there's some implicit boundary to the generalization: maybe you mean "the Greeks" to be Greek citizens generally. In this case the boundary is people actually living in Greece. Maybe you mean the Greeks who live in the neighborhood up the street. Maybe you mean the ancient Greeks. In all cases there's an implicit limit to your generalization.

When your mother in law says "the blacks" there is no way for you to implicitly limit the generalization. It sounds as if she's speaking about all black people everywhere, or can't be bothered to make any finer distinction. To your ear it sounds as if she's implying that skin color determines taste. If that sounds racist to you, it should. Your mother-in-law may not actually be a racist but she's saying something that sounds that way."

5. posted by falconred at 12:28 PM on October 3, 2004
"Agreed, the "The" for whatever reason is only used by people who see themselves as different from the group mentioned. The way you hear conservative christians talk about "the gays", etc."

6. posted by headspace at 12:43 PM on October 3, 2004
"Speaking from the midwest here, I'd find it distateful because in my experience, if the information is racial and irrelevant to the subject, then it's putting up a divider between "us" and "them," indicating that there's some kind of novelty in what "they" do just based on the color of their skin, with the implication that it's not something "we" would do.

My mom is the one who taught me to respect all people, period, but she will occasionally tell a story she read in the newspaper and start with "This black guy..." I needle her because she never says "This white guy from Shipton won the lottery," but she'll always say, "This black guy from Shipton won the lottery." I've harrassed her enough that now she says, "This black guy- and his race has nothing to do with it!- won the lottery," so she at least knows it's a tic, but it's so ingrained into her that she can't get rid of it entirely. I chalk it up to her generation."
Bold font was used in this comment.

7. posted by jessamyn at 12:57 PM on October 3, 2004
"I think it has to do with using one characteristic of a person [in this case race] to sort of stand in for the person or actually all people from the race. The lit. term for this is metonymy, or that's what I think of. So, instead of saying "black people" which is a noun followed preceded by a modifier, you are taking the modifier and using it to stand in for the noun, in a way saying "this noun can be reduced to one adjective". When I was going to college in the PC heydey one of the things that was put forward as a more appropriate way to discuss people from other races/cultures was to make sure that you noted somehow that they are people [general term that we all belong to] first, with the racial or cultural attribute also. So instead of saying "the blacks" you can say "black people" and it makes it a more human, personal and [in my opinion] appropriate way to discuss others, also less likely to be misconstrued. "Turkish people" and "Jewish people" as phrases do not have the barb potential that Turks or Jews do. Whether or not her assertion about chutney was or was not accurate, this is the crux of why it sounds weird to me."

8. posted by yalestar at 1:57 PM on October 3, 2004
"God bless AskMetafilter and all who sail with it. It's great to have a bunch of people who can succinctly explain what I often find so elusive.

I agree that it's defintely the "the". I like that thing that jessamyn laid out especially: there's something very subtle yet eminently less blunt about saying "black people" instead of "the blacks." Not that ascribing some trait to all people is ever really a good idea, but from a semantics standpoint, one is definitely better than the other.

It also occurs to me that the phrase "the blacks" kinda smacks of a time when most of the US referred to a whole race of people as if their presence amounted to some sort of national crisis, e.g. "the negro problem." "

9. posted by geoff. at 1:48 PM on October 3, 2004
"Okay after about the fifth time, is there a way to use the word black as one would use the word WASP. If a family moved in next to me and wore nothing but khakis, lacoste and drove an Acura --- I'd say "yeah we have a WASPy family next to us". If a family moved in that wore Phat Farm (or whatever it's called) and had all black Cadillacs with spinning rims, I'd say "yeah we got some real black neighbors". Now if a black family moved in that was more culturally "normal" I'd never say "that's a black family". I can't really think of a better way to put this, but is there a way to refer to someone's culture without applying underlying racist undertones? Or is this an impossibility with our current language restrictions? I mean this honestly as I've referred to things as "black" before without being racist but simply to specify a very specific culture. Really, I'd like to know so I don't accidently offend someone."
Read #12 for a response to this comment.

10. posted by headspace at 2:00 PM on October 3, 2004
"Unfortunately, since you're using both black here as shorthand to say "These folks are living up to the stereotype of X," there's no way you can use it and not sound like a jerk. I think the only time you can use it and not be offensive is if you're using it as a statement of fact, "She's the first black president of Whatever Co.," for example."

11. posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:07 PM on October 3, 2004
"if the information is racial and irrelevant to the subject
[quoting another blogger]

That's a very good distinction. Sometimes it has nothing to do with racist overtones, you're just trying to narrow the group so someone understands who you're talking about.

For example, I was helping facilitate a neighborhood meeting a couple weeks ago, and there was a single black couple there (welcome to Nebraska). They had some interesting things to say, and later when I was talking about it with my boss, I said, "the black couple had some good points."

When you're just trying to make a distinction in a large group, I don't think it's poor form to say, "the black guy" or "the black couple" -- in fact, I've seen people try and find semantical ways around saying those very words, when in fact it would be far easier and clearer if they just said "the black guy." Personally, I think it's more racist to try and talk around saying "black" or "jewish" or whatever than to just come out and say it. It shows you're systematically thinking about not trying to draw distinctions.

Occasionally when I say something like "the Hispanic couple" I'll get a wierd look from white people, as if I've crossed some PC-no-fly-zone. Look, it's OK, folks. Really. The more the terminology is used correctly, the faster our civilization can grow past these stupid distinctions.

There's a huge difference between using an all-inclusive group ("those jews all stick together," "those black people talk funny," etc.) and using it to try and be more specific when dealing with particular individuals. Connotation is important. Unless you've got an enormous chip on your shoulder, and there's nothing you can do about those people. :)
Italics were found in the quote.

12. posted by dame at 2:22 PM on October 3, 2004
"Well, see geoff., there's a number of big problems in that question right there. I assume your question was asked in good faith, so I'll try to answer it that way, but be assured the phrasing there includes a number of offenses. Of course, lots of people might disagree with me, but as you'll see that's rather the point.

1. WASP stands for a specific kind of white person, not all white people. So to say that a family is WASPy is less offensive because you are really pointing to a galaxy of traits in which the skin color is only a single (and not the most salient factor). But a number of people would still be offended to see you reduce you neighbors to a stereotype (see also: white trash).

2. Your assumption that wearing Phat Farm & driving Cadillacs with rims makes people "real blacks" is ignorant and rather insulting. Really, that is just the image *you* have of blacks, mostly through the media I'm guessing. But there is no one type of real black, just as there is no type of real white. Who is more white, someone from rural Minnesota or someone from San Francisco? That's seems like a stupid question, right? They are just different people with different traits based on differing community. Just so, there are poorer urban blacks (who seem to be the basis of your stereotype) and weathier suburban blacks who do things like Jack & Jill and uber-wealthy blacks who have been vacationing in tony enclaves on Martha's Vineyard for generations. Not one group is "really" black, just a different sort.

3. Now for the most ignorant comment: if a black family moved in that was more culturally "normal" I'd never say "that's a black family".

What is "normal" precisely? Like you? In many neighborhoods, you would be abnormal. To assume that someone who comes from a different, less culturally dominant community is abnormal is the height of rudeness and insesitivity and the foundation for a lot of racism. That person may be perfectly "normal" for their context. But here you apply your own context as though it were universal and "correct."

I hope that's an adequate beginning for your question. I'm really not the best person to speak to this but I'm here now.

If you are really interested in not being insulting, I would work on not assuming skin color equals particular traits on its own. I would also try learning something about the history and traditions of one of America's great minorities, or heck, all of them. Then, I might try traveling in order to experience different "normals."

On preview: Headspace says it so much better.

And no, Space Coyote, "restricting language" doesn't make people less racist. Seeing how particular phrases reflect racist assumptions, and then discussing those assumptions might."
The blogger who asked whether restricting language makes people less racist used the name "Space Cadet" and not "Space Coyote". That for the actual name "Space Cadet". The blogger posting as "dame" corrected her mistaken use of that screen name.

13. posted by shepd at 8:51 PM on October 3, 2004
"I think it's the lack of inclusion and the extreme exclusion of the phrase that's causing the rub.

With the choice of phrase your grandmother used, it suggests that only a black person would eat chutney. Clearly, this would indicate that a white person that ate chutney would be considered a black person in her eyes. History does the rest to make this phrase a poor choice.

Taking out the "The" doesn't help it. "Blacks eat chutney!" is the shortest you can make it, and it still sounds terrible.

An alternate phrase, if you had, in fact, only seen black people eat chutney, would be "Chutney is preferred by black people." This would not mean a white person would be "black" by association should they enjoy chutney, but would mean that you had seen more black people eating chutney than white people.

I think an alternate phrase like that leaves the door open to a more scientific or cultural answer than skin colour determining your food preferences. For example, perhaps black people prefer chutney because, as a culture, they were exposed to it earlier in history than white people.

"The blacks eat chutney" makes it clear that by having black skin one automatically would want to eat chutney, which is clearly silly thinking."

14. posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:39 PM on October 3, 2004
"I can see some utility for "black" as a more or less descriptive term for someone of African ancestry, if only because otherwise, there's no convenient shorthand for the commonality between Lenny Henry and Nelson Mandela. (Whether there is a genuine commonality worth identiying is a good question, of course). It can't be an appearance thing, because frankly I'm probably darker than Colin Powell most of the time, and it can't be a cultural thing, for reasons well put above.

Searching for these descriptive terms is potentially offensive in that there are some categories that polite people are blind to. There is no good label for distinctions we're ashamed of making.

(PS: as a New Zealander, I'm aware that I could be deaf to a lot of nuances in this discussion, so bear that in mind)."

15. posted by vacapinta at 9:53 AM on October 4, 2004
"nthdegx, I wasn't saying that the word "blacks" is inherently offensive but that the construct "The blacks..[insert generalization]" sits in most American minds (this may be different in the UK or across the world) as the template for an offensive statement.

I'm not arguing its the only force at work here but it does explain why I cringe when someone in California begins a sentence with "The Mexicans..." but dont cringe when I am in France and someone begins a sentence the same way (its usually followed by e.g. some praise for mexican food unlike the former which usually expresses some vague anti-immigrant sentiment)"

From Why-is-saying-blacks-racist
Why is saying "blacks" racist?
Why is saying "blacks" racist?
[question, no name given, no date]
1. "I sometimes say "blacks" as a short form of black people (e.g. "The blacks live in that neighborhood").
Recently, a coworker pointed out that this is racist. Why is this so? I also say whites."

2. Carter Moore, American, former Congressional aide and Federal employee, Written 1 Feb 2015
[upvoted by Britt Smith, black person.
"Depends on the context.

Whenever I'm quoting statistical data, populations are usually broken out by self-reported race/ethnicity. As such, I end up writing a lot of sentences like, "Compared to Whites, Blacks are [x] more likely..." It sounds weird in casual conversation, sure, but that's how most major studies collect data.

Now, if you're about to make some sort of sweeping generalisation about culture and habits, and the only thing you're citing is your personal Appendix of Selective Stereotypes, I'd be skeptical of your intentions.

3. Britt Smith, black person, Written 1 Feb 2015
"I suppose it isn't actively racist but it just sounds weird to me. Like when people say "the Jews". Usually people who say this are about to say something racist in my experience."

1. "Black People: is it less racist to say "the black race", "black people", "African-Americans", "blacks", or "people of color"?
I'm white, I don't know anything about racism and I want to know if how I am addressing you as a group is racist and which ways might be less racist and preferred."

2. Alvin Grissom II, Ph.D. Student, Computational Linguistics, Computer Science Written Nov 5, 2015
""African-American" is safe, but it sometimes sounds like you're trying too hard. "People of color" usually refers to anyone who isn't considered white (which says something about what people assume is the default human being, but I'll leave that). "Black" sounds fine, as does "black people" Avoid "blacks," and do not under any circumstances say "the blacks" or "the black race." When you place "the" in front of "blacks," it sounds like black people are something Other and bad. When you say "the black race," it assumes that (1) race is something we all agree is real outside of people's minds, and (2) that black people are a single race. Even if (1) were true, which it isn't, (2) most certainly wouldn't be true. In general, such terms as "the black race" and "the white race" are the purview of separatist groups.

More broadly, I think black people are usually pretty accommodating to people who make an effort, as long as it doesn't seem patronizing or otherwise overbearing. If this comes up in a conversation and you don't know what to say, if you humbly explain your lack of experience and ask for clarification, most will be more than happy to explain to you what they prefer, and might even be happy that you care enough to ask. Obviously, your mileage may vary. But you shouldn't have to be walking on eggshells. If you make a faux pas, just apologize."

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment