To the Editor:
The Dartmouth recently reported that 93 percent of the women who died in New York City over the past ten years as the result of criminal abortions were "poor colored women" (Nov. 13). Since the reporter paraphrased from a lecture given by Mark Garber in the previous paragraph, it is unclear whether this phrase is one Garber himself used or not. It's also unclear to me whether we are meant to interpret "colored people" here as "black" or "African American" people or as any group other than "white" people.
This confusion aside, the term "colored" is worth considering -- as the terms "negro" and "darkie" were worth considering for some time after their use became anachronistic, if not offensive, in earlier American decades. I reference the falling out of use that such terms experience now because "colored" has come up in conversations I've had with students several times this term. One student, for example, reported to me with frustration (and a good measure of humor) that another student referred to "colored people" while giving a presentation to the members of the Afro-American Society a few weeks back.
Lest I end up dubbed the language-police or the PC-enforcer (not that there's anything wrong with being PC .... ), let me say that I believe communication is a give and take process. Both parties can expect to chafe on occasion while hanging in, hopefully, for the payoff of meaningful exchange. Nonetheless, just as, in America, earlier terms gave way to "colored," I think it is safe to say that "colored" has given way by now to "African American" or "black" when referencing that specific community or its members.
Relatedly, the phrase "people of color" has come into vogue and is embraced by many differently raced people as an alternative term for "minorities" when some need (for better or worse) compels us to draw such race-based distinctions. Part of the reasoning behind the use of this term is that it frees us from having to rely on terms which, like "non-white," hinge their recognition of someone's (or some group's) racial or ethnic identity on departure from an assumed norm of "whiteness." In addition, "people of color" often now replaces "minorities" for people who consider "minority" inaccurate from a global (versus American) perspective and/or deem it to have acquired negative connotations.
I offer these thoughts because there are times when well-meaning people just don't get it or have somehow remained unexposed to these admittedly unpredictable and fluctuating linguistic and ideological shifts. I offer them, too, because -- as one of the folks here at this time and in this country whose racial identity is not likely to be charted according to its difference from the norm -- I don't think it should be left to "others" to educate us.