A Defense of ‘Politically Correct’ Language
One of the interesting things about writing this column every day has been noticing how quickly the words we use to describe ourselves, each other and the world are changing. And how uncomfortable that can be.
Here’s a recent example. Yesterday was Columbus Day in lots of places in the US, a holiday that “nobody” really cared much about until it turned out that a lot of people did. Plenty of people would prefer not to celebrate a terrible person who murdered and enslaved an astonishing number of indigenous people, condemning an entire population to a path of genocide and destruction. Now, at least 14 communities including the state of Vermont and the cities of Phoenix and Denver – have passed measures that make the second Monday in October “Indigenous People’s Day.”
But plenty of other people never got the updated Columbus memo, and prefer the original version of the history they were taught by people they loved and trusted. And the many, mostly Italian-American groups who still fight to keep Columbus Day, feel that something is being taken away from them. A sense of history and pride that isn’t really about the man, but more about acknowledging their legacy and contribution to the great American experiment.
There isn’t a good word for how it feels when the history you’ve lived with – which is usually more marketing than truth – turns out to be deeply upsetting to someone else.
Being inclusive means many of us have to work overtime to make sure we’re getting these new words and concepts right. Like Latinx, a term which removes the gender binary from the Latino/Latina construct. Cisgender. (I’ve even started asking people for their preferred pronouns in interviews.) Aboriginal peoples, not native people. Employees with disabilities, not “disabled employees.”And do you remember the charming “openly,” as in Erin O’Flaherty, the first “openly” gay Miss America contestant? That’s still around, but if we do our jobs, not for long.
Then there’s “model minority,” a stereotype disguised as a compliment – all Asians are successful because they’re hardworking and don’t complain! In truth, the term erases the real economic challenges facing many Asian communities, places inordinate pressure on Asian people to conform to expected norms, and unfairly separates them from other minorities who aren’t as “noble.” (Read a great piece on the burden of the “model minority” myth here.) It also stems from a deeply racist notion. But talking about the concept, as difficult as it can be, remains an important way to uncover biases which still impact people in school, work, and life.
By the way, we’re about to run out of runway on the term “minority” altogether. The newish term popping up is “majority-minority” which describes the coming demographic shift when all the ethnic minorities in the US will outnumber the white population. Sound inclusive to you? We’re going to have to workshop that one a bit, I think.
So, if this sounds like a rallying cry to feel some sort of way about political correctness, it’s not really. It’s more a reminder that words matter because the wrong ones can do real damage, while the better ones in the right context can help marginalized people become fully visible. Learning to name ourselves and each other is itself a process of prototyping, iteration, and forgiveness.
This from a person who’s angrily typed the word “pussy” more times in the last week than I have in the last ten years. Some things change. Some things, evidently, stay the same.
|Why Disney’s new Mulan script is driving everyone crazy|
|The projected release for the live-action remake of the beloved Disney film isn't until 2018, but the leaked script is making waves now. The original animated film had Mulan refusing to comply with strict gender expectations of her time and bravely fighting to save China. The new version finds a white merchant accidentally saving the day and winning Mulan’s heart. And that's a huge problem.|
|Angry Asian Man Blog|
|A new app lets you search for and buy diverse books|
|An advocacy group called We Need Diverse Books is publishing a new app that lets librarians, educators, parents, and kids search a curated database of more than 1,200 books with diverse characters and stories. It will also offer the option to buy from independent sellers. Coming January 2017.|
|Why Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ bombed at the box office|
|Culture writer Rebecca Carroll smartly frames the anticipated and hotly-contested film as a product of a time when the modern experience of black oppression would find a robust film about a slave uprising appealing to producers and distributors. But, evidently, nobody else. While the controversy about Parker’s personal life put off some potential movie-goers, the real reason the film is failing is that it’s not very good. Turns out, nobody needed Braveheart with black slaves.|
|The black travel movement is having a moment|
|If all this election talk makes you want to run for the hills, then start with this podcast on the black travel movement, which is transforming an industry long dominated by companies led by white men. Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe and Shannon Washington, co-founder of a travel magazine for black women, are the hilarious and insightful guests talking about how they’re building a real business catering to an underserved market– 17% of African Americans travel six times a year, and account for some $50 billion in travel related spend across the globe.|
|How racist can a juror be and get away with it?|
|The Marshall Project has this handy quiz that asks you to read some incredibly racially-biased statements and then guess whether or not the juror who said them was allowed to continue to serve. It only takes a few minutes! Then you can spend the rest of your day curled up in a ball under your desk.|
|The Marshall Project|
|The venture capitalist who is both a man and a woman|
|Here is another new term and idea to discover: Genderqueer. Backchannel's Jessi Hempel leads an extraordinary Q&A with angel tech investor Cyan Bannister, who is also married and a mother, and who never felt comfortable with a single – or any – gender identity. It’s one of the best conversations on the complexity of gender, and how even discussing it can confound those who yearn to be courageous about their identities.|
The Woke Leader
|What is a good immigrant?|
|America has a long history of pointing to one demographic group as “good” and acceptable (like the Germans) and others as problematic and “bad” (like the Irish.) Today, candidate Trump is whipping up crowds with the promise to kick out some “2 million criminal aliens.” President Obama also promises to deport “felons, not families.” But the reality about who is a good and bad immigrant today is complicated. What if you’re a felon and a family man?|
|A young Native rapper explores his past and future with a new album|
|Frank Waln, a rapper and member of the Sicangu Lakota in South Dakota, uses music to process his own bouts with depression and explore what it’s like to be a modern Native American, inextricably linked to a history of genocide. He finds inspiration in the parallel journey of African Americans. "Hip hop just resonated with a lot of Native youth from my generation, especially growing up on reservations because we could relate to the stories being told in the music."|
|He’s bringing civics back. So all the citizens will know how to act|
|Educator Eric Lieu says that Americans are illiterate in power – what it is, how it works and why some people have it and others don’t. His idea? Make civics “sexy,” meaning compelling as a concept, like it was during the Civil Rights Movement. This TED talk was filmed in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street (and before the Movement for Black Lives) but he hits all the right notes for what can happen when we use fresh thinking to inspire all people to participate in shaping society.|