Specifying person’s race an inexact science

Leonard Pitts

This is for Larry, who wants to know what to call folks like me.
Larry’s a reader in San Jose who grew up back when “Negroes” was the proper term. In the late ’60s, when “black” came into vogue, Larry used that. Now, he says, some black people prefer to be called “African-American.” Which is fine by him, except that he knows some black folks despise the term.
Larry says he supports a people’s right to be defined as they choose. He just wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately, it’s become difficult to know what that is. So Larry asks if I can simplify things for him.
Dear Larry: No.
Sorry, wish I could help you, but the truth is, there is nothing simple about any of this. Your confusion only emphasizes the fact that race is one of the dumbest inventions in human history. Dumber, even, than the guy in the horror movie who says, “OK, we’ll be safe here.”
The problem is that race does not exist. Experts will tell you it cannot be defined with scientific exactness, has no objective basis in reality. That’s why all our terminology has proven so maddeningly imprecise.
Black? Most of the people in question are brown or tan and a few, downright beige.
Colored? We’re all colored, aren’t we?
African-American? So what does that make the white person who emigrated from South Africa?
Negro? It carries more anthropological weight than the other terms. Unfortunately, it also carries connotations of some yassuh boss toady who never got the message that we is all free now.
Finally, there is “the race.” That term is little remembered these days, but it was beloved by black intellectuals in the ’20s and ’30s. “We are working for the uplift of the race,” they would say loftily. I always wondered what that made white folks … the other race?
Speaking of which, none of this confusion is confined to black African-American Negroes. If, for example, one aspires to specificity, one is now obliged to say “non-Hispanic white” when referring to the people we used to call plain ol’ white. This, so it’s clear you’re not talking about Hispanics who, the Census Bureau will tell you, are defined not by race but by the language spoken in their country of ancestry.
Unfortunately, some Hispanics hate it when you say Hispanic because they prefer Latino. Then there are the people I grew up calling Indians until they asked to be called Native Americans, except that everybody who was born in the USA is technically a native American, so now the preferred term is American Indian. At least, that’s what an editor told me the other day. Of course, he was non-Hispanic white, so what does he know?
At this point, Larry, I’m sure you’re drinking heavily and sorry you ever asked and I don’t blame you. But here’s the thing: Though race is not a scientific reality, it is a social and cultural one. In our country, hardships and rewards, advantages and demerits, are still largely apportioned according to color-line perceptions. So we are forced to evolve a vocabulary with which to discuss the subject, no matter how unwieldy, how imprecise, or how much of a PC pain in the backside.
As for me, I’m not particularly picky. You can call me black or you can call me African-American. Just don’t call me late for dinner.
Years ago, Larry, there was a scene in one of the “Star Trek” shows where a man — we would call him black — describes to an alien a woman he’s looking for. He says something like, “She has brown skin, like me.”
There was something elegant in the simplicity of that description. Something hopeful, too.
Because Larry, in a saner world, the answer to your question would be painfully obvious. And when somebody asked a non-Hispanic, black Native American Indian, what he preferred to be called, he wouldn’t have to give the currently acceptable term for his genus, his group or his type. He’d only have to give one thing.
His name.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: