Black and white - outdated inaccurate terminology hampers progress in racial issues
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|Updated:||5 months ago||Status:||Debating Period|
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Ancient ethnographic studies show that the word "white" in refence to light-skinned people was used in the Greco-Roman times (1). This shows that the word wasn't made up recently, but has always been there. That said, the word wasn't always a racial classifier. Once a word starts flowing in the mainstream, it loses its original meaning to the one being used among its users. For example, the word "bitch" used to mean "female dog". The word started being used as an insult in the 14th century, being used as "a sexual female". Now, I'm sure telling your friend to watch his bitch would get you a fist in the face.
Similar to what was stated above, the words "black" and "white" may have been made to mean racial classification (although they weren't; see (1)), the lost their meaning as people started using them as a characteristic rather than a classification method.
You pointed out that no one was really black or white. Well, I can see where your argument is coming from, but I'm going to have to point out how absurd it is to take societal terminology this literally. For example, is they say someone is grey-eyed, do you expect to see a pair of grey eyes? Black-eyed people are rarely black-eyed; they're usually dark brown. Does this mean it's wrong to call those eye colors grey and black? No! Because, by saying their eyes are black, the person you're talking to totally understands what you mean and can now imagine this person; it's a socially accepted word that has a specific society-imposed meaning. After all, if I were to create a word - say, "koo", to mean toilet - and people use it, it suddenly gains meaning that wasn't inherently there.
As a conclusion, the word Black is used as a characteristic, just like blue-eyes and flat-nose. It isn't meant literally, and isn't meant offensively. It isn't offensive and does not promote racial separation, just like calling someone "American" and another someone "Arab" doesn't promote ethnic separation.
(1) "On both sides of the chronological divide between the modern and the pre-modern (wherever it may lie), there is today a remarkable consensus that the earlier vocabularies of difference are innocent of race." Nirenberg, David (2009). "Was there race before modernity? The example of 'Jewish' blood in late medieval Spain" (PDF). In Eliav-Feldon, Miriam; Isaac, Benjamin H.; Ziegler, Joseph. The Origins of Racism in the West. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 232–264. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
I didn't mean to imply that I actually think of the words in a literal sense, just that they do have literal meanings and that it obviously refers to skin colour.
"Red Indians" is on old, outdated term for the Native American people. Why was it changed? Because they're not red and they're not from India. Likewise, it is considered racist to say that Oriental-Asian people are yellow (because its not true and is seen as racial stereotyping). Why are people of European and African descent the only two races still commonly referred to by their skin colour?
I see your point about generalizing things for the sake of clarification, however, when you say someone is grey-eyed you expect to see eyes so close to grey that there would be no argument about the truth of it. Same goes for black-eyed. "White" and "black" people have a huge range in skin colour. I admit, at a glance, the palest of the pale in Europe do almost look white, and in Africa their skin can get very dark, but I've never seen an "actual" white or black-skinned person, just very pale and very dark-skinned people. The generalization of people as black or white is basically just "too much" of a generalization.
Then there's still my point about black and white being "opposites" that needs to be addressed. Again, I know that most thinking people know not to take such things literally, but I think there is a very negative sub-conscious connotation to it. Extreme racists can use it to justify their mindset, that black and white people are, to put it simply, "opposites" and can never mix without losing their identity.
You stated that we shouldn't take the word's original meaning into consideration when using it contextually. I totally agree with your point. Actually, you agree with my point as well in some sense. Let me explain: the word "white" didn't start off as a racial classifier. Then it became one through the centuries. Then, with the revolutions happening to defend the rights of the people of color, the word lost its racist meaning and started holding a more abstract meaning: the color of one's skin.
It is true that Red Indians has become an obsolete term, but that is mainly because Red Indians themselves are very small in numbers. Also, it is true that they are not truly Indians, so the naming is wrong. However, as I said, blacks and whites aren't wrong namings in that sense (more on this in a later paragraph).
Let's say that you witness a theft in a shopping mall. You're being interrogated about the identity of the thief. "The thief was black," you might say, or "white". This will very much help in narrowing down who it could be, as it is something on the exterior of a person and hence something he can be described with. One might argue that terms like "African-American" or "Dark-skinned" can substitute "black". That, however, is not true, for not all black people live in America (if they're in Canada, are they "African-Canadians?) and "dark-skinned" is too vague. A tan person is dark-skinned, for example.
You have no right to say the "black" and "white" are wrong to use for being inaccurate. After all, as stated above, I can call "males" by the word "banana". I'll tell my friends the code, and we'll start using it. By no right can you tell me it's wrong because males are not bananas. After all, what is language if not a set of meaningless jumbles of letter that the society agrees on giving meaning? When I said banana, I was symboling males, and my friends got it, so my idea was delivered, and so language served its purpose. You cannot, then, tell me that my usage of language is wrong, because what I said was understood by society, even if not literally accurate. In other words, if I say "the black man", you won't think of a coal-colored man, or a jet-black-colored man. You'll think of a dark-skinned man, which is what I intended. So, since language served its meaning, it cannot be argued that it's wrong.
We talk about many things that are opposites in our daily lives. Men and women. Miami Heat and Lakers. The East and the West. Republicans and Democrats. This is only for the lack of a better term; when the only two genders that naturally exist are males and females (disregarding but greatly respecting intersexual and non-binary transexual people), they're ought to be viewed as opposites, even when they intersect in more than one place (both are humans, both are equals, ...)
I am not claiming that there are only black and white people. Asians are neither, for example, and nor are Middle-Easterners. Same applies to genders, basketball teams, and political parties. However, the place where language was formed (let's suppose it's the US, although it's not) had a big political party or gender or whatever, and several small negligable ones (at the time). So, it is only rational that when another party or gender or basketball team emerges just as strong as the previous one, it is viewed as its opposite (they might come simultaniously, and the contradiction would be the result of the lack of other parties). This does not mean that they're opposites in the real sense; Lakers and Miami Heat both play basketball in the US and are very good teams with very talented players, and they do not contradict in any other way. Another example that won't add to the value of this but might clarify it: if you're from somewhere where soccor is the main sport, like me, then you must've been asked if you cheer for Real Madrid or Barcelona, as if they were the only two teams in the world and are in everlasting contradition, when we know it isn't true as I explained above.
So, this contradiction shows nothing but the fact that blacks are regarded as equals to whites and not as a minority. The opposition in the naming does not mean opposition in meaning.
But I do have a right. A right to my opinion/belief (and you have a right to oppose it). My aim here is to try and illustrate my belief that the words black and white should be obsolete (in regards to race) because they don't function very well anymore, partly because they are inaccurate/inadequate, partly because they have a direct history with racism (despite their intended use being moderate and abstract nowadays), and partly because they have literal meanings that can imply things that can (rather obtusely) be taken out of context.
Most black people in the USA prefer to be called "African American" because of the country's history of racism, the stigma attached to the term "black man", and the issues with racial profiling (yet politicians, the media, and activists, in the USA still proliferate the use of the term "black" which is confusing to me).
In regards to just skin colour, saying "dark-skinned man/woman" would be vague, but just as easy and more descriptive and accurate than just saying "black man/woman", which is even more vague, simply because there are many other races that have dark skin that are not black people. They know this, they're not going to call any other dark-skinned race "black" because their other features adequately identify them.
Although black and white are supposed to be used in a moderate, abstract way in regard to skin colour, they ultimately/inevitably still allude to certain old abstract racist/racial concepts. Ie. they are symbolic.
For example, think of how the KKK dressed in white, and the Black Panther rebels dressed in black (not saying they were the same and should be judged the same, and/or that they hold sway over common opinion/definitions, just that they were both racially-minded, and "extremists" that made an impact on racial issues, and they both used the colours in question to symbolize and bolster their racial pride). I would love to ignore the fact that white supremists like KKK ever existed but their presence in history has made a definite impact on racial issues that lingers on today. White supremists, like KKK, are a tiny minority (in the world), but they are still around spreading their influence, and they use the colours, symbolically, to reinforce their opinions that white people are superior (apparently white symbolizes purity and goodness and black symbolizes death, evil, darkness, etc).
So, despite the fact that these words are supposed to be moderate and abstract, they have old stigmas and connotations (albate very silly ones) still attached to them and are at the very least subconscious reminders of a racial/racist past.
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