Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Word Waves

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Word Waves

Article excerpt

Word waves. Editors can ask a vast range of questions within the space of a day. From mind-numbing minutia to erudite minutia to the not-so minute. One question that surfaces not infrequently in the Report's editorial offices is how to refer to groups of persons, especially persons classified on the basis of their race or ethnic heritage. What is the preferred term, in the ongoing evolution of preferred terms, to refer to a person of African American, Latin, Asian, or European descent?

Well, it depends from where and to whom you speak. A recent example should illustrate this claim. I was editing a piece by an African American scholar whose work in medical ethics focuses on minority concerns. In her essay I noticed she used both "African American" and "black" to describe this population. So I called and asked her whether she had done this intentionally and, if so, what the rationale was behind each usage. She told me that she had used, and does use, these terms, as well as "people of color" and "colored," interchangeably to reflect the varied usage within the African American population in this country. She wants her language to reflect the many ways her black family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances refer to themselves.

Indeed, in casual discourse she told me her usage bends even more. Depending on the degree of friendship and intimacy and shared experience between her and her interlocuter, she wields the language with greater flexibility and a sort of self-reflexive humor. With the words, "you're acting colored," she can pay compliment to a close--black or white--friend. …

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