Defining ethnicity

Sam Smith – As a writer and an editor, I have long had a problem with the way ethnic groups are defined and mentioned in writing. I think it all started back in the 1980s when Jesse Jackson began calling for the use of the term “African-American” and not much later gave a speech on the Mall in which he never referred to his ethnic cohorts as anything but “black.”

The truth is, whatever they claim, people are highly inconsistent in such matters, and the best guide is to listen to what ordinary people say in ordinary conversation. Thus African-American is preferred by academics,  white liberals trying to prove their sensitivity and  black activists trying to make a point, but on the street, more than three decades after Jesse Jackson’s efforts, black prevails.

In the wake of this I came up with a proposal for ethnic categories that went absolutely nowhere, namely that every ethnic group name should be limited to one word of no more than a dozen letters with hyphens prohibited. Further, ethnic groups should not have capital letters because they are not a place, a person, or a name on a door or business.

The problem is that ordinary people actually prefer the short and the simple, but those trying to exercise leadership over them and others tend to prefer more complicated terms. Further, they are thinking about branding rather than defining, a fact given away by their preference for capital letters – just as advertisements use capitals where they don’t belong. Consider the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which in a more normal era was known as food stamps.

Now we are faced with the move to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Certainly there is no reason not to dump the atrocious Christopher Columbus from our heroes of holidays but surely we can do better than this pretentious, bureaucratic-sounding alternative. It’s the sort of term one imagines Barack Obama using for a White House conference but not the way any normal human being would describe themselves. Further, its advocates should know that in Canada, it is resented by some of the native culture because of its hostile use by the French who referred to them as indigène.

I don’t have a solution, but offer two phrases used in Canada: First People and First Nation. Accurate, non pretentious and kind of nice.

After all, would you rather sit in a bar on your day off and celebrate First Nation Day or Indigenous People’s Day? And which makes you feel better about those you are celebrating?


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