Political Correctness and Talking about Race


September 2, 2008 by Korshi

I was reading a friend’s blog today when I came to the end of a sentence that bothered me. It ended like this “African-American (or is it black? Or negro?)”.


It was just a throwaway comment, but it bothered me for some reason. Which was, I realised, the subtext. He probably wasn’t even aware of it- that kind of comment is a stock phrase implanted by culture and hovering somewhere in most of our brains, waiting to be put into writing- but the subtext is that political correctness has gone mad, and it’s impossible to say anything without offending someone. African-American?! Black?! Negro?! Who know what to call them these days!!!


I’m going to come out here and try to defend political correctness, discuss some different words for race (mainly here in Australia) and generally hold forth on an area I have no qualifications for except existing in a racial grey area (somewhere between white and black).


On Political Correctness


First of all, I’d like to clear up what I mean by “political correctness”. The concept, I believe, has been put together by an illuminati-style cabal of right-wing commentators, wrongly conflating several different practices, in order to ridicule identity politics, and suggest that the Left is engaging in an Orwellian process of thought policing. There’s nothing wrong with vilifying your political opponents with hyperbole and false association (I’ve enjoyed calling George Bush a fascist along with my pinko friends), but the surprising thing is that many on the left are jumping on the band wagon of decrying political correctness too. Everyone wants in on the fun.


What I would like to reclaim as acceptable political correctness is using words correctly, and thinking about what you say. Politically correct words, “Black” instead of “negro” or “Indigenous” instead of “abo” set a basic level of politeness in dealing with people on an everyday basis, and in some cases that I will look at later are more semantically accurate. There’s nothing new about the concept of politeness, and we all know you don’t have to be polite around close friends, but it means it’s harder to be inadvertently offensive. As Peter O’Toole says in the Last Emperor “You need to be able to say what you mean because if you can’t say what you mean, you can’t mean what you say… and a gentleman always means what he says.”


What the right wing has tacked on to this reasonable idea are a number of practices that have more to do with overregulation, fear of litigation and (occasionally) publicity stunts. Banning the word Christmas is overregulation. Labelling coffee “extremely hot” stems from a fear of litigation (an example of the free market most neo-conservatives love in action). Calling “fairy penguins” “little penguins” is a publicity stunt.


On Race


So race. I’m of the school of thought that race doesn’t exist except as a socially constructed concept, but like other such concepts- money, religion, gender and corporations, to name a few, it has a very real effect on the world. Of course there are obvious physical differences between people, but: they’re skin deep. The modern human race seems to have descended from a very small group in Africa, and I’ve recently read that there’s typically more diversity in a single band of chimps than in the entire human race.[1] Compared to other species, we’re basically inbreeds. It’s only when people from distant parts of the world are artificially brought together- for instance, far eastern Asian, north western Europe and western sub-Saharan Africa- that an illusion of distinct races emerges. On the ground, and with more diverse migration, the problems with the idea of “race” becomes more obvious.


People like to point to differences in ability or genetics, but most of these are probably better explained culturally, or are basically insignificant.  With the Olympics a very recent memory, the apparent fact that black people are faster runners is there for everyone to behold, with the unspoken corollary that if they’re good at physical stuff they might not be so good at other (maybe mental?) stuff. Well, most athletics records are held by black people. But to take one example, the current 200m record is held by a Jamaican, 19.30 seconds, whearas the fastest white person, Pietro Mennea can run it in 19.72 seconds, so we’re not talking apples and oranges here. We’re looking at a difference of 2%.


As for genetics, it’s a no brainer that we’re going to be able to measure differences in two groups defined by physical characteristics. The question is “Is this the best way of defining different groups?”


White People


Australia’s in an interesting situation, compared to the one I grew up with in Edinburgh, in that white is a category under threat by large numbers of people who are European, but physically or (more often) culturally different from the first few generations of Australian settlers. Because these first immigrants came from the nations of the British Isles- Ireland, Scotland, England and (probably) Wales, a lot of Australians use the terns “Anglo-Saxon”, “Anglo-Celtic”, or, more succinctly “Anglo”. As a shorthand for “of British Descent”. I guess this works, but I dislike the monolithic, pseudoscientific implications of the word, so I never use it. If you were being accurate but long winded, you might say “Anglo-Saxon-Jute-Brythonic-Irish-Scottish-Pictish-Danish-Norweigan” to try to capture the full history of the British Isles.


(Although recent genetic studies have shown that there was actually very little discontinuity in historical Britain, that the language changed more than the people during the various “invasions”, and that they probably came from Spain. Which is probably why I read on a Wikipedia discussion page that Spaniards were found genetically to be the “whitest” race. All that really says is that they’re closest to the standard definition of “white” in America, which, like in Australia, is a synonym for “of British descent.”)


So I’ll leave “Anglo” alone for now.


Another word I sometimes hear, and one which really makes my toes curl, is “Aryan”. Back when linguistics was a new field, people discovered that northern Indian, Iranian, Greek and Italian languages- Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Old for instance- were all related. They decided to call the family to which they belonged to “Aryan”, after an old name for the Persian and northern Indian peoples (from “Arya”, meaning noble, also the source of the current name of Persia: Iran).


Not too much later, they discovered that Germanic languages, including German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and, of course, English, are also part of the same family. Which is where Hitler and the Nazis came in, and decided that the word fitted their theories of German heritage quite well and co-opted it. They were able to contrast the Aryan master-race with the Celtic French, Spaniards, Scots and Irish, the Semitic Arabs and Jews, and the modern Indians, Greeks and Italians, who were some sort of mongrel-race only tangentially related to their blond-haired, blue eyed ancestors who created culture.


And this is as far as most people’s knowledge of the word seems to go. When I hear it used, it’s as a synonym for Germanic, meaning basically the same as “Anglo”- of British, and occasionally of German or Scandinavian descent.


What this ignores is that since Hitler’s time, linguists realised that Celtic languages are also Aryan, so that according to the broadest definition Aryan covers pretty much all of Europe, minus a few tiny pockets such as Basque country in France and Spain, and all worldwide speakers of English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. According to its narrowest definition the word covers only Iran, and maybe northern India and some Romani (gypsies). There’s no way to make it mean Germanic without buying into a disproven theory championed by the most evil man in popular culture.


PS- In linguistic discussions, “Aryan” is almost never used these days, because of its negative connotations. “Indo-European” is preferred, mainly because there’s little evidence that all Proto-IE ever called themselves “Aryan”.


The word Caucasian, along with its buddies Negroid and Mongoloid, is another one I tend to avoid. In the 19th century, or thereabouts, these words were coined in an attempt to give a scientific veneer to the concept of race, which was of course a key component of the European concept of their manifest destiny. The idea behind these labels was that White People originated in the Caucasus region (in modern Georgia), Yellow People in the vicinity of Mongolia, and Black People came from planet Negro (psych! They basically just decided to use a Neo-Latinish word for “Black”).


Of course, this meant there was a lot of fun, and little consensus, deciding where, for example, Indians (who are a pretty diverse group in themselves), North Africans, Indochinese, Polynesians, Native Americans and Native Australians. One obvious illustration that race is a social construct, is that the definition decided upon in most cases dovetailed neatly with the requirements of Empire. Aboriginal Australians were blacks, and were therefore hopeless savages to be enslaved and exterminated. But the mixed race children of Indigenous Australians and British Settlers were white, and removed from their culture and land claims. Mixed-race Black/White Americans, by contrast, were legally black even if 15 of their 16 great-great-grandparents were White, providing a conveniently large pool of slave labour.


So I avoid these words, because they give a scientific legitimacy to an unscientific concept. I prefer White, Black and (for reasons discussed below) Asian, since they are at least upfront about the fact that they are inadequate words used for convenience for more complex, and dubious, ideas.




When I first arrived in Australia, I was surprised to hear the word “wog” used to describe Greeks. Here, it can be any European, or Middle-Eastern, or North African, or even South American, of “non-Germanic” descent. Basically, it’s “white” but different enough culturally, to need distinguishing. In Edinburgh, I had no concept of this category, probably because there weren’t large enough numbers of Italians, Greeks or Lebanese to bring about awareness of them as a non-mainstream, but somehow cohesive group.


The stereotypes of Wogs are strong adherence to religion- Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim, big, extended families and chauvinistic men. Oh, and great food- kebabs, souvlakis, pasta. Probably because this whole stereotype is new to me, I find it completely bizarre, and my head doesn’t really have a default slot for “wogs”, any more than it has one for “Jews” or “Hispanics”, white-ish ethnic groups who are significant elsewhere but weren’t part of my consciousness growing up.


When you ask about where the word “Wog” comes from, people here often tell you it’s an acronym of “Western Oriental Gentleman”, something I highly doubt. Along with “Prisoner of Her Majesty” for Pom (English), it’s almost certainly a backronym, invented after the fact to explain where the word came from. More likely, it comes form the English use of Wog, from golliwog. Used first to refer to black-face minstrel-looking dolls, then black people, then Indians, then, in Australia, to Mediterraneans, slightly darker than the average British immigrant, and finally, to the non-Mediterranean immigrants who seemed to share the same stereotypes I’ve already listed.


Calling people only slightly darker than you “wog”, a word which basically means “black”, seems a bit bizarre at first, but the surnames “White” and “Black” come via the same thinking. In small British villages, the darkest person, in hair or skin, was “black”, and the lightest “white”. It might seem strange to us, living in a world where we could at any time meet people who are actually near-white to near-black (but are usually some shade of brown), but to me it highlights the relativity, and potential harmlessness, of those words.


One interesting thing about Wogs, along with every other group who are neither “completely white” or “black”, is the way that they are seen as “more black” than normal white people, as if race is a spectrum, with “Germanics” on one end, and the blackest Africans on the other, and everyone else somewhere along the line, more focus being placed, usually, on the fact that they are “less white”. I’ve seen Black stereotypes (which are really African American stereotypes in most cases)- rhythm, big asses, big dicks- applied to my half-Iraqi, half-Anglo-Australian housemate, and a friend from work’s Maori boyfriend.


Which raises the point of…


Coloured/People of Colour


Another word I don’t use much, but which has a more salubrious history. Coloured has meant different things- Black in mid-20th century American America, mixed Black/White in South Africa- but here I use it in the sense of non-White. The justification, along with the similarly inclusive word “queer” is that it brings together diverse groups with similar interests (in a Western context, at least). The problem for me is that it legitimises the concept of “White” purity, while mashing the huge diversity that exists among what amounts to around 83% of the world’s population, reducing them to a faceless brown horde along the lines of the Persian army in 300. I prefer the term “Non-White”. It can be argued, on a fairly simplistic level in my opinion, that this a negative term, but I think that it captures the contingency of grouping people together for political purposes.


Historically, the word “black” has served the same purpose as “coloured”, and sometimes it still does- my Sub-continental friends refer to themselves as “black” on occasion, and inner city Sydney Asians, Australian Aborigines and continental Africans seem to identify with Black- that is, Black American- culture, on a level that I think has something to do with its status as the non-white culture par excellence. Again, I dislike this use. Generally, the pattern is that I dislike words that emphasise homogeneity and downplay diversity.




Sydney is full of Asians. And the funny thing is that most of them probably, would identify themselves as “Asians” back in Asia. There they’d be Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, or whatever else, and be able to list ways in which they differ from their neighbours, both in dress sense and in physical appearance. The interesting thing about Asia, as opposed to Europe, is that Asia has never been united, or even defined in the modern sense, by its own people. Most of Europe was one state under the Roman Empire, and even the parts that weren’t (Russia, Scandinavia) have to claim to be part of that Europe for the propaganda benefits of the Roman, Greek and Christian culture that forms the basis of European Identity.


Asia, and Africa, coincidentally, are European concepts. Asia originally referred to the Middle-East, since the Greeks didn’t have much idea how far away the rest of Asia was. When more recent Europeans discovered how big the continent was, they kept the term Asia to refer to everything east of Christendom, lumping together people as diverse as Turks, Arabs, Indians, Siberians and Chinese under one category. Because of this linguistic accident both Indians and Chinese can belong to the same race- Asian (in the UK, sub-continentals and generally called “Asian”, and East-Asians, are, if I remember correctly, “Chinesey” or “Oriental”, but in Australia Asian always means East Asian). Of course, this definition of continents has had real political consequences in the creation of Asian and African economic super-national entities, defined roughly according to boundaries established by Europeans, which shows that the way you use language can really shape the world.


So “Asian” is an unsatisfactory term, but it’s widely understood, not usually offensive, and better than “yellow”, with all the negative Fu Manchu associations that word brings with it.


Mixed Race


This is the word that best describes me, but strangely the one I feel I have the least to say about. “Mixed race” is probably the safest phrase to use. “Bi-“ or “multi-racial” work too, but they’re getting a bit clinical. “Half-caste” or “mulatto” are usually offensive, but I actually don’t mind them that much, and some people seem to have started reclaiming them, maybe for their slightly anachronistic charm. Maybe mixed race people haven’t been subjected to enough historical discrimination, as mixed race people as opposed to part of whichever minority they are part of, to make these words particularly offensive.


What else to say? The very excellent podcast Addicted to Race, and the related blog Racialicious cover a lot of the issues related to mixed race identity. One of the biggest issues is identifying as mixed race as opposed to black (or whatever minority you’re part of). This has been pretty noticeable recently with the press surrounding Barack Obama; although it’s a somewhat unusual case, in that people are usually pressing mixed race people to identify more with their minority heritage, for reasons of solidarity on one side, and to protect the purity of whiteness as an ideal on the other. The fact that the Right has been so busy questioning Obama’s blackness has much more to do with political motives than any sudden awareness of mixed race identity issues.



To come round to the question I started this post with, “African-American (or is it black? Or negro?)”, I’d say the answer is African-American, or Black, but never negro. As I’ve said before, negro (in English) has a pseudoscientific veneer, and a history of association with legalised Black American oppression, including slavery. Since I’m not American, I can’t really comment on whether Black- or African- is a better prefix, but unhyphenated Black is probably safer as a general term. That way you won’t look stupid calling someone African-American who may have African ancestry, but is certainly not American.

And the question of why have more than one set of words for a group of people? Why not?  Having lots of words for the same thing may piss off second language learners, but for the rest of us they make the language richer with nuance.


[1] Mentioned in The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley (1997, Viking, Great Britain), but since I’m not sure of the page number, but also cited in Brooks, Martin (1999). Apocalypse then. Our genes show that early humans teetered on the brink of extinction. New Scientist 163. 2199 (14 August): 32. according to this site

One thought on “Political Correctness and Talking about Race

  1. Alex Hernandez says:

    Excellent post! I agree that Black is usually the way to go and if you want to get formal (at least here in the States) African-American is what’s used.

    I had never heard the term Wog before and I find it hilarious especially because I would certainly fit into that “group” since I’m of Canary Island decent, making me a mix of white Spaniards and the Berber natives of the islands. (I’m labeled Hispanic or Latino over here.)

    I want to restate that humans are probably the least diverse ape on the planet and yet we insist on these stupid made-up categories.

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