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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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What's in a Name?
"Politically correct" language continues to spark debate on and off campus

By Todd Sallo

The mascot of the Fighting Whities is a chipper middle-aged white guy with slicked-back hair who looks a little like Ozzie Nelson, or something out of a 1950s cigarette ad. Grinning broadly, he says, "Every Thang's Gonna Be All White!"

An intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado, The Fighting Whities were organized last February by a group of students who chose the name, "to have a little satirical fun and to deliver a simple, sincere, message about ethnic stereotyping," according to the team's Web site-launched as a response to the unexpected maelstrom of national attention they have received.

The team wanted "to make a straightforward statement using humor; to promote cultural awareness through satire," and it generally has been received as intended, as a humorous lark that also delivers a message. Scott Ostler, of the San Francisco Chronicle, wondered, "How are the Whities going to be able to win if they can't jump?"

Still, the Fighting Whities really touched a nerve, both on and off campus. Like all good satire, the humor derives from an association with the familiar: We all have seen various groups, especially Native Americans, caricatured in this manner, and used as mascots. It is a sensitive issue, and one that many colleges and universities are addressing, if belatedly and somewhat reluctantly. At the very least, using these mascots gives the appearance of hypocrisy, considering that the higher education community has tended to be at the forefront of progressive racial, ethnic and gender politics-what might be called political correctness-for decades.

The term "politically correct" seems to have originated in leftist circles, who used it to describe "modern" ways of thought, or to admonish those who adhered too strictly to a dogmatic "party line." By the late 1980s, however, the term was being appropriated by conservatives to criticize and attack changes in attitudes and course offerings on college campuses. Curricular revisions, for instance, that were intended to make higher education more inclusive or "multicultural" in orientation were derided as mere "political correctness."

And mixed up in all of it was the hot-button issue of affirmative action, and similar programs, which never have been embraced by the right. Once again, the "culture wars" were heating up. And the college campus was ground zero.

In 1989, Stanford University made a much-publicized revision in its core western civilization courses-placing more emphasis on women and racial minorities. Other major universities, like The University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin, followed suit. Colleges revised descriptors for minority groups and began instituting speech codes aimed at controlling "hate" speech.

Conservatives seized the opportunity to engage in a battle over these issues. In 1991 the first President George Bush delivered a controversial commencement address at the University of Michigan in which he condemned "the dangers of political correctness." There was a flurry of articles in Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times, the Village Voice and others about the new political correctness on campuses.

Today, the term "politically correct"-with its vague Soviet overtones bringing to mind a shadowy "thought police"-is inherently dismissive. Like "tree hugger," it generally is used derisively, and mostly by those who oppose what it represents. Conservatives contend that political correctness-and all of the efforts to broaden curriculum and to make institutions of higher learning more accessible to minorities-is an unnecessary exercise. They argue that it addresses appearances only-and therefore has no real effect-and that it actually is a counterproductive, "Balkanizing" force.

The term "politically correct," or "PC," is now part of the vernacular outside of academia as well. And everyone is engaged, in some way or another, in the debate.

But is this all just semantics?

At its core, this is simply the age-old debate about the power of language. On the one hand are people who liken modern academia to the "Royal Academy of Lagado" in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," with its solemn "projectors" laboring to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and to build houses from the roof down. Their contention is that attempting to achieve social progress by changing the way we use language is mere window dressing, and ultimately futile.

On the other hand are those who are more in sympathy with George Orwell, who wrote: "If thought corrupts language, language also can corrupt thought." They believe that words influence thoughts and actions, and that language is a very powerful force for social change.

One thing is undeniable: A great deal of attention has been devoted in recent years to dealing with the complex semantic issues surrounding the delicate politics of race and gender, and to adjusting our use of terminology to suit changing sensibilities.

Tower of Babel

Humans have demonstrated a special capacity to invent, and use, racial epithets. Some terms that once seemed respectful have, over time, ended up becoming insults instead; and some that were intended as insults ended up being embraced, and used, by those groups.

For instance, "negro" and "colored" once were considered progressive. In 1841, when John Quincy Adams referred to "negros and persons of color" in a legal brief, these terms were seen as merely descriptive. The same is true of the 1807 Slave Trade Abolition Act, which referred to "any negro, mulatto, or person of colour."

During the Civil Rights era, "colored" gave way to "negro," then to "black," which persists to this day. "Colored," though dated, is enshrined as part of the NAACP acronym. "Afro-American" sort of came and went, forever associated with big hairdos of the 1960s. But "African American"-part of a trend in which "American" is added on to the end of just about every group identity-thrives as the current flavor of choice, favored most generally by various published guides on language usage.

However, in an interesting twist, "persons of color" seems to be gaining renewed popularity. Has it really taken us more than 200 years to progress from "colored persons" to "persons of color?"

In a similar manner, "Oriental" has been replaced by "Asian," although many institutions have divided that designation into a plethora of subgroups, including: Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese.

"Indians" now refers only to people from India. There are Indian Americans, but American Indians are now "Native Americans," although Native Americans still call each other Indians. And while identifying a Native American by tribal affiliation-such as Cherokee or Sioux-once was considered insulting, many style guides now recommend it as preferable to the more general terms.

"Alaska Native" has replaced "Eskimo" and "Aleut," and many guides recommend that it also be accompanied by a tribal affiliation when possible. However, the Association of American University Presses cautions that "native peoples of northern Canada, Alaska, eastern Siberia, and Greenland may prefer 'Inuk' ('Inuit' for plural)."

Meanwhile, whole books have been written about what might be called the "Hispanic; Latino; Latina; Chicano; Chicana; Mexican American; Puerto Rican; Cuban; Manito; Raza" controversy. No one seems to be able to come up with a term that will satisfy this broad constituency.

And, last but not least, there is "white."

Northwestern University's "Ethnic Classification Summary"-which is representative of many language usage guides-defines white as "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East." Some guides allow the use of "Caucasian," "Euro-American" or "European American." The U.S. government now classifies the entire group as "non-Hispanic white." (There is also a "non-Hispanic black" category.) While this may provide more accurate information, it does seem a bit strange to define a majority of the population by what they are not.

The issue of gender in language usage is another area of great concern, particularly on college campuses. The goal has been to use "gender-neutral" or "nonsexist" language, which is intended to purge discourse of any sexual bias. In some languages this challenge is compounded by the assigning of sex to common nouns. Fortunately, English allows for a neutral gender in such cases, but that doesn't get us off the hook.

In addition to now-familiar neutral terms like "fire fighter" (instead of "fireman") or "mail carrier" (instead of "mailman"), words like "chairman" "forefathers" and "freshman" must be addressed. (Recommended substitutions are: "chairperson" or "chair"; "ancestors"; and "first-year student.") College and government style guides provide lengthy charts showing the older wording alongside the preferred gender-neutral forms.

A tremendous amount of effort has been devoted to gender-neutralizing the use of pronouns as well-the use of "man," "mankind" or even "human" to refer to people, or the classic bias toward the use of "he" and "his."

The University of New Hampshire, in its "Guidelines for the Use of Nonsexist Language," offers this gem: "Man, like other mammals, breastfeeds his young." It is a beautiful demonstration of a sentence that is constructed correctly, from a strictly grammatical point of view, yet begs for some sort of modernization. The suggested alternative is: "Humans, like other mammals, breastfeed their young." That's the most frequently used escape-switching to plural. For example, instead of "Each student must bring his own supplies," style guides counsel something like, "Students must bring their own supplies." Thankfully, "his/her" and "he/she" seem to be falling from favor, although a number of guides still recommend their use.

The guidelines also recommend "parallel structure," thereby avoiding any implied sexism in phrases such as "man and wife." (The preferred phrase is "husband and wife.")

For any editor, policy expert, college teacher or media figure, just keeping up-to-date on all of this can be daunting. A radio doctor recently voiced his frustration, and suggested that perhaps we should simplify matters by giving up the words "women" and "men" entirely and refer instead to "persons with ovaries" and "persons with prostates." Of course, since this could draw the ire of people who have had their prostates or ovaries removed, it is an imperfect solution-but an entertaining one.


The U.S. census of 1790 had only five categories: white males 16 years and older; white males younger than 16; white females; other white persons; and slaves. The 2000 census includes: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White; and Some Other Race. In addition, respondents are allowed to select more than one race when they "self-identify," and can choose up to four different categories.

The Office of Management and Budget advises that "Hispanics and Latinos may be of any race," so the census also offers two new "ethnic" categories: Hispanic or Latino, and Not Hispanic or Latino. "In the federal statistical system," the official census Web site explains, "ethnic origin is considered to be a separate concept from race."

With all the possible multi-racial permutations, this amounts to government recognition of some 64 different racial/ethnic designations. At last, Tiger Woods-who invented for himself the term "Cablinasian"-meaning Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian-can fully "self-identify," without having to disavow some part of his richly varied racial heritage.

Conservative columnist George F. Will decries this trend, and blames "people who make their living by Balkanizing American culture into elbow-throwing grievance groups clamoring for government preferment." In his 1993 book, "Culture of Complaint," Robert Hughes, a senior writer for Time, wrote that although "polite white society" has repeatedly changed its mind about what to call black people, "for millions of white Americans, from the time of George Wallace to that of David Duke, they stayed niggers, and the shift of names has not altered the facts of racism, any more than the ritual announcement of Five-Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward turned the social disasters of Stalinism and Maoism into triumphs."

Conservatives try to turn the whole matter into farce by concentrating on designations such as "differently abled," and "physically challenged," and even imaginary ones like "vertically challenged" (instead of "short") and "living impaired" (instead of "dead"). Lengthy lists of these can be found all over the Internet.

The PC movement, to the extent that there really is such a thing, has definitely provided fodder for humorists-and ammunition for its opponents. In his book, Hughes chides liberals for their excesses, and wonders, "Where would George Will, P. J. O'Rourke, the editors of the American Spectator all be without the inexhaustible flow of PC claptrap from the academic left? Did any nominally radical movement ever supply its foes with such a delicious array of targets for cheap shots?"

Mock sympathy aside, Hughes may have a point. Even some on the left think that political correctness, though well-intentioned, may have gone too far.

For example, a quotation from Chaucer that includes the word "Niggardly" stirred a controversy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, when a black student complained about its inclusion in a lecture. Obviously, her confusion resulted from the fact that it sounds like "nigger," but there is no etymological connection between the two words. (Niggardly is defined as stingy.) Even so, there were many who insisted that its use was inappropriate, and that it would be best to avoid the word, and any others that might upset people.

In a similar vein, many colleges recommend finding alternatives to terms like "black sheep" and "blackmail," and even advise against expressions like "a chink in his armor," or "a nip in the air," because of the possibility that their use might offend sensibilities.

The "one drop" rule

While everyone readily agrees that gender has biological significance, the fact is that race and ethnicity have no real taxonomic meaning. In other words, the idea that the different races are somehow separate kinds of people was discredited long ago. Unlike different species, which cannot produce viable offspring, human races interbreed freely, and frequently. It is literally impossible to tell where one race ends and another begins; such a differentiation would be fundamentally arbitrary.

Who is, and is not, African American? How much "blood" does one need in order to qualify?

The "one drop" rule is one prevailing legal standard. A dubious relic of the slavery era, its original intent is obvious. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy vs. Ferguson, tacitly accepted that a person one-eighth black and seven-eighths white is legally black. But, even if this were a rational standard, how could such a thing be determined? How "black" does the relevant great grandparent have to have been?

Cornel West, a professor of Afro-American studies who recently made headlines by moving from Harvard back to Princeton, uses Clarence Thomas as a ready example of this conundrum. In his book, Race Matters, he points to Thomas' "undeniably black phenotype." Yet, he notes that the questions, "Is Thomas really black? Is he black enough to be defended? Is he just black on the outside?" were "debated throughout black America in barber shops, beauty salons, living rooms, churches, mosques and schoolrooms."

Noting that Thomas made much of his African American heritage, especially by employing racially charged terms like "high-tech lynching," in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, West asks, "What is black authenticity?"

Of course, the same question could be asked about any racial category. Insisting that "blackness has no meaning outside of a system of race-conscious people and practices," West advocates "replacing racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics."

Ironically, conservatives are using similar arguments to attack affirmative action programs. They seem to be claiming that racism would disappear if we simply dispensed with all these fine racial distinctions and categories, stopped being so careful about our use of language, and just called ourselves Americans. However, Cornel West-hardly an unflinching supporter of affirmative action-argues that in the absence of such programs, we quickly would see a return to the old patterns of white supremacy in both public and private domains.

We are far from being a colorblind society. It certainly can be a nuisance at times to deal with a barrage of ever-changing racial, ethnic and gender terminology-a steady stream of newer and better names for the myriad sizes, shapes, colors and other variations of humankind. But this may be a price we have to pay for the purposes of social progress, and simple civility. One of the main functions of PC language is to avoid inadvertently slighting or insulting someone by using a term they might find offensive. The easiest, and best, solution is simply to choose alternative words.

Language does have power. We use words to convey our thoughts, put intentions into action, and to persuade. While it is true that words have only the power we bestow upon them, we cannot rob them of their power by pretending that they are meaningless.

We should choose, and use, our words very carefully.

Todd Sallo is an editor for National CrossTalk.

Meeting recently with a group of American Council on Education Fellows, Chancellor Charles B. Reed of the California State University System offered this advice on how to deal with legislators and other politicians:  
There are a few basic rules for political engagement that apply to just about everyone. The first rule is this: "politics" starts with a lower-case "p." It's not about being a Democrat or a Republican. It's about getting to know people and helping them understand what you are doing. Ultimately, every politician-Republican, Democrat or any other party-believes in the importance of education. The second rule is: "no surprises." It is important to work through the right channels. Many universities, like ours, have state and federal relations offices. The people who work in these offices are the experts. They know the legislators, they know the staffers and they know how to work with them. Let them know you're in town when you go to D.C. or your capital city. Let them know what you are doing. Let them help you. They don't like surprises-and neither do legislators. The next few rules are pretty simple for successful work with legislators:

  • Always tell the truth.
  • Don't tell different stories to different people.
  • Don't take an hour of their time when you only need two minutes.
  • Don't feel the need to impress them with your intellect.
  • Don't tell them everything you know-tell them what they need to know, as simply as possible.
  • When you've finished making your case, know when to leave.

I think that pretty much sums it up, so I'll take a page from my own rulebook and end right here.

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