Friday, October 31, 2008

Racial Terms

Words, like the people who use them, have a complicated history. Nowhere is that more apparent than when we write and talk about race.

Imagine that you’re asked to review and offer editorial feedback on a set of 30 PowerPoint slides to be projected at a major influenza conference in the United States. The slides will be cycled on a giant screen as several hundred physicians and healthcare workers arrive, mingle, and prepare for the actual conference proceedings.

While reviewing the slides, you notice that quotations are used in the deck, quotations from a physician who worked among the sick and dying of Camp Devens, Massachusetts, during the influenza outbreak of 1918, the worst in American history and responsible for some 600,000 deaths. The Camp's doctor (let's call him Dr Roy) described the cyanosis at Camp Devens as so bad that it was
...hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white.

The quotations are poignant and serious, strategically chosen by the slide deck's author for their emotive effect. The quotations from Dr Roy's letter make perfectly clear the menace, the lethal threat, of influenza in 1918. But the important question that you, the slide deck's editor, should ask is this:

Is it appropriate to use the racial word coloured on slides being presented at a major international influenza meeting?
The racial term coloured (or colored) was originally adopted by emancipated slaves after the American Civil War, but it was superseded in the US in the 1960s by the term black. Some who would describe themselves today as black or African American find the word colored more than simply outdated: It is offensive.

Consider Henry Louis Gates Jr, who wrote in 1969,

My grandfather was colored, my father was a Negro, and I am black.
The word colored signals a particularly difficult past, one marked by the dehumanizing machinery of slavery and segregation. Not surprisingly, Merriam-Webster warns that colored is often offensive; it doesn’t even appear in the list of racial terms provided in the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, people, blacks, people of color (usually lowercased when based loosely on color) Negro, Negroes
Nor does the 10th edition of the American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style make any provision for the word colored. AMA provides only two possibilities, black and African American (no hyphen), but also warns that African American may be the preferred term (though it should be allowed only for US citizens of African descent).

In its original 1918 context, the word colored as used by Dr Roy at Camp Devens was probably inoffensive, but the word's political and ideological baggage simply cannot be ignored by content developers here and now. Allowing the word colored in your slides, even in quotation, strikes this editor as dangerous.

Read up on the Camp Devens experience: in 10 minutes you'll have enough material to achieve the same profound effect without having to include words with complicated baggage. The slide deck's purpose and audience should guide your editorial judgment, and there's just no reason to risk alienating the audience with a racial qualifier.

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