Let’s Lay Some Words to Rest

During a recent Q&A session with a distinguished black author and speaker, a woman from the South tripped so badly over race-based terms, she barely could spit out her danged question.

“ … black … ah … African-American … ,” she sputtered – and not for the first or last time. “Which is correct? Which do you prefer …”

The speaker said both were appropriate, but he doesn’t like the hyphenated lexicon widely considered modern, correct usage. He preferred “black.”

Point is, our language can be so … disorienting. I spent much of my young life listening to people refer to me and others of my racial background as “oriental.” It was a confusing term. It means “of the East,” and, having grown up in Seattle, if I were to fly to Japan, the country where I was born, my airplane technically would be traveling west-bound.

The word also is used frequently in association with rugs. Which always were overstocked. And on sale. So following the logic, “oriental,” being a term applied to inanimate objects, was meant to dehumanize and demean?

No wonder people of Asian descent have come to regard the term as the equivalent of “Negro,” another condescending, race-based term tossed in the junk pile (some would argue: recycle bin) of the English language.

I’d love to toss four more words onto that pile: Minority, Citizen (when paired with Science), Inclusion and Diversity.

THE CASE AGAINST MINORITY
This is a word in the oriental camp – dehumanizing and condescending. It also means a smaller group and, in my mind, connotes a sense of “lesser.” I hate it for that reason, but eradicating the word will be difficult. The newspaper of record, The New York Times, uses it, for goshsakes. It essentially performed a search-and-replace in my piece, “Why Are Our Parks So White,” that it published two years ago. And “we” even are culpable, referring to ourselves as “minorities.” Ugh! A term coming into more common usage, “majority minority,” doesn’t even make sense! And don’t get me started on the term, “Model Minority” … Preferred: People of Color, Non-White.

THE CASE AGAINST CITIZEN (SCIENCE)
My brilliant friend Marcos Trinidad, director of the Audubon Center in Debs Park (Los Angeles), has reconnected his facility and organization with the surrounding, non-white, mostly Latino neighborhood by modifying charged common terms. Think about it: How many people are you excluding from the conversation when using “Citizen” in these immigrant-shakedown days? The term, “Community Scientist,” not only is more welcoming, it’s a hundred times more accurate and what various organizations meant in the first place. Preferred: Community (Science).

THE CASE AGAINST INCLUSION
Inclusion has become preferable to my next targeted word among people of color advocating for equity in the outdoors. So a lot of people don’t consider it a negative. I don’t like what it stands for: You (people of color) can be part of our (mainstream white) world. No thanks, that feels too much like Assimilation or its despicable cousin, Melting Pot. The aim is to gain Access, then take a little bit from all of us to create a new Thing – in other words, we all celebrate our differences together. Preferred: This is a problem. Is it Access? Some like Belonging. Welcoming? Send your ideas; you might become as famous as Marcos Trinidad for your contributions.

THE CASE AGAINST DIVERSITY
“But we like that word, we talk about it all the time, it’s in our mission statement, it’s in the name of our new company … “ Truth is, a lot of “you” don’t like this word anymore. It’s become the modern-day equivalent of Affirmative Action, a charged term that invites pushback or derision. It’s also become vapid – a goal or checkbox that lacks intention. Or a widely misused adjective (“diverse people” … what are those?). Preferred: Equity. Yes, it does not mean the same thing, but it is accomplishing what we really want, which is accounting for barriers to equal access. Besides, it will take people so long to truly understand its meaning, it will evade obsolescence for a good while.

Sticks and stones? Not always.

During a recent pilgrimage to the World War II Japanese imprisonment camp at Minidoka (Hunt, Idaho), I attended a session about half-Japanese people like myself. There was a short debate about what to call ourselves. The popular expression, Happa, felt like an appropriation of a Hawaiian term. Hafu, one of those Japanese words borrowed from English, feels like Minority. My parents always told me I was an Ai No Ko, literally child of love. No one in the millennial-dominated audience had heard of it; it takes too long to explain anyway.

So we all just shrugged and trudged off to the next session.