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September 2, 2001 - Race Terms - 2002-01-30

AA: This is Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- as delegates in South Africa discuss racism, we discuss the language of race.

RS: About thirteen percent of Americans are African American. They are now rivaled in number by Hispanics, who can be of any race. Asians have reached four percent of the population.

AA: Still, as of last year's Census, the great majority of Americans identified themselves as "white."


"I call myself Euro-American in some of my classes, and my students get really offended by that."

RS: Janet Bing is a linguistics professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. She has worked on diversity training at her school, to help different people learn to get along. In her words, "We're all ethnic in some sense."


AA: "Race and ethnicity -- what is the difference?"

BING: "We tend to use race for color, I think, more, and ethnicity for culture, but in fact the two can't be separated, just like language and culture can't be separated."

AA: And when a particular group lacks much power, she says, whatever term is used for that group eventually becomes negative.


BING: "For example the term 'Negro' was the polite term actually when I was a child, but it's associated with a group that had very little power or status in this society, and so the term became negative. So people wanted a more positive term and they changed it to 'black,' and now it's 'African American' or 'Afro-American.'"

AA: "Now what about the term 'people of color'?"

BING: "Well, at the university level, it is THE term, the polite term. At least at the university where I teach, we have a lot of international people and a lot of blacks and a lot of Asian Americans. They refer to themselves as 'people of color.' I think it's a unifying term for them."

RS: Although "Caucasian" and "Anglo" are a couple of terms used for white Americans, mostly they're just called "white." But a professor who teaches courses on race and ethnicity has noticed a change.


"Actually in social science now you will see the term 'European American' used somewhat more, or sometimes we will say 'non-Hispanic white.'"

AA: Sue Model [moe-DELL] at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


"From my perspective as a sociologist, I think it is unfortunate that words like 'racism' have come to have the more general meaning of any kind of disadvantage associated with a wide variety of racial or ethnic mixtures, when in fact I think the difference in experience is primarily between people of African origin and others."

RS: To many people, "diversity" simply means racial diversity. This past week, however, a court ruling challenged that view.

AA: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that it's unconstitutional for the University of Georgia to award "bonus points" to any non-white applicant. The judges wrote: "We assume that there is value in having a racially-diverse student body, but racial diversity alone is not necessarily the hallmark of a diverse student body."

RS: They noted that a white student from a disadvantaged rural area in Appalachia may well have more to offer the university than a non-white applicant from an affluent family. But Sue Model says its unlikely that a white student would face the same kind of scrutiny that non-whites sometimes face.


"It is very unlikely that anyone is going to be very closely watching that Appalachian when she or he goes to buy a record or goes into a five-and-dime store, to make sure that he or she doesn't walk out with something."

RS: Sue Model says part of the problem with language is that it really hasn't kept up with change in America.


"I think that unfortunately what is happening is that language is confusing us, that in our attempt to be inclusive, that in a sense we are more inclusive by using let's say a word like 'racism' instead of a word like 'anti-African Americanism,' which would be much more specific. We could use many, many more words to describe the various ways that different groups could be defined or could relate to one another than we have. Our language is impoverished relative to the diversity, if I could use that word, of our experience."

RS: And that's all for Wordmaster this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "You Don't Bring Me Floriculturally Diverse Polyfragrant Soilistically Challenged Multipetaled Victims of Pesticidal Food Chain Chauvinism"/The Capitol Steps