Monday, April 4, 2011

The politics of "colored people"

NAACP graphic
“I have never been able to discover anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient….”

     Earlier today, I heard a great little news story on NPR about the NAACP and the so-called “new diversity” (listen to the story here).
     The gist of the piece is that the NAACP—i.e., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—had gone into decline but is now rebounding, in part because it in some sense embraces a “new diversity” such that the “colored people” of its name is increasingly understood as including, not only African Americans, but “people of color”* (i.e., all non-whites) and even gays.
     I say “in some sense” because, as the NPR story reveals, some blacks resist or reject this new diversity and regard the phenomenon of non-blacks—e.g., Hispanics—leading NAACP chapters as a kind of “hostile takeover.”
     Meanwhile, some African Americans in the NAACP establishment seem to welcome and celebrate the new diversity.
     Philosophically, this is a delicious issue, a real smorgasbord of reasonable but conflicting perspectives with no resolution in sight.
     The NAACP was in fact founded by blacks—and whites!—at a time (1909) when the term “colored people” was the least offensive term for blacks, but that, in fact, was also (sometimes?) thought to include Native Americans and even other non-whites.
     But, unless I’m very much mistaken, the NAACP was and has been dominated by African Americans (not Native Americans) and, during most of its century-long existence, it has focused on African Americans. And so, whatever the peculiarities of its philosophical origins, at some point before I came along (I’m 55), it had become the single most prominent organization of and for African Americans.
     And further, one might suppose, it is good that such an organization—one by and for African Americans—exists. That is, if there were no such organization, then—one might suppose—there ought to be one.
     Part of the trouble here is the term “colored people,” which is loaded with cool (and not-so-cool) issues. One such issue is the term’s curious status as both offensive and inoffensive. When used by clueless residual rednecks (who may or may not be racist), it is offensive, owing to that usage’s historical links to a racist past. On the other hand, when used (viz., in its name) by the NAACP, it is inoffensive, owing to the organization’s origins—at a time when the term “colored people” was the clear choice among the decent and progressive.
     But, again, unless I am very much mistaken, the NAACP continues to “use” the term (justifiably, I think) despite the term’s (otherwise) long ago ceasing to be appropriate for the group for which it was created. And, somehow, the term—remembered now by most of us as an artifact of an unfortunate past—has I think narrowed in meaning, no longer referring to Native Americans (et alia) but clearly only to African Americans.
     So it is understandable, I think, that some African Americans view the NAACP as an organization specifically for African Americans. It undeniably had become that kind of organization (many decades ago), and its very name arguably refers to African Americans, its century-ago meaning to the contrary notwithstanding.
Frederick Douglass
     NAACP’s (slightly troubled) embrace of all people of color (and even gays) as the referent of the phrase “colored people” strikes me as generous, magnanimous, and forward-thinking. I like the spirit of the “new diversity” crowd in the NAACP. But I am not inclined to carp about those blacks who want and value an organization specifically for African Americans—and who, for obvious reasons, take the NAACP to be that organization.
     Part of me wants to call this a “dilemma.” But, of course, if it is a dilemma, it isn’t my dilemma. This is an issue (if it is an issue) for, well, “colored people,” whoever they might be.
The man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress . . . the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT—and … he who has endured the cruel pangs of slavery is the man to advocate Liberty. It is evident that we must be our own representative and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly—not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.

*I hope that it goes without saying that “colored people” and “people of color” are very different terms, despite their grammatical similarity.

See also

• Lohan calls Obama ‘colored’, NAACP says no big deal
• Tea Party Express' Mark Williams: NAACP's Use Of 'Colored' Makes It Racist

NAACP graphic

1 comment:

Chris said...

How did "people of color" become a popular phrase among liberals? Surely the difference between that and "colored people" is so small as to be almost undetectable? More to the point, it's a term that's likely to confuse the hell out of ordinary white people who have just come to term with "colored people" being potentially offensive and probably makes them more likely to use that term. I also wonder how ordinary African-Americans (i.e. not activists) would take it.

I know the people who say "people of color" mean well, but I still think the term is best avoided. If you mean "non-whites", say that.