Tripping over racial identifiers

census graphic

My grandpa used the n- word around me growing up, but my mom never did. She and my dad both grew up in the same rural Missouri town, but they never used that word around me.

I think it was because of my mom’s deep compassion that she never could treat another human as less than human. She always had a deep appreciation for people as people. My dad never used racial slurs either, maybe because he enlisted in the Navy soon after high school and learned to appreciate different kinds of people.

So as I grew up I didn’t use the n- word. I mostly said “black people” and “white people” in context, like my parents did. I would hear others say “Blacks” and “Whites,” but sometimes those people were clearly racist so I wasn’t sure whether those terms were OK or not. When I was in college, “African American” became the culturally sensitive term to use. Some of my Black friends at Mizzou liked it and some preferred the term “Black.”

Often I didn’t know what word to use and felt like I was always using the out-of-touch or insensitive word. It was easier to just avoid using any terms whenever possible.

But when editing the Heal Us, Emmanuel book that wasn’t an option. As Doug and I worked to bring together 30 authors of different races to speak to the need for reconciliation and unity in the church, we were forced to determine which specific racial identifiers we would use in the book.

We first decided we would use “black people” and “white people” because we felt like “Blacks” and “Whites” sounded a bit antagonistic and dated. But then a Black friend pointed out that when we say “black people” and “white people,” we are talking as if the people are actually that color. He noted that Black people aren’t actually black and White people aren’t actually white. True. I also realized it would be inconsistent with how we were referring to other races with capital letters: Hispanic, Asian American, Native American. So I changed the references in the book to “Blacks” and “Whites,” and we also chose to allow for the use of “African Americans” and “Caucasians.”

But that didn’t solve everything. Because then I realized how tricky it could be to discuss in a parallel way terms that were sometimes racial (Black), sometimes ethnic (Hispanic), and sometimes geographic or nationalist (Korean American). I looked to the U.S. Census categories for guidance and realized they have faced similar classification challenges over the years and are just as much a product of evolving cultural norms as anyone.

This is well represented in What Census Calls Us: A Historical Timeline from the Pew Research Center (2015). For instance, the 1790 U.S. Census only had three categories: Free white males and females; All other free persons; Slaves. In 1860, Indian was added as a category. In 1870, Chinese. It wasn’t until 1960, that people could indicate their race themselves instead of being designated by the census taker. Starting in 2000, people could indicate more than one race for the first time. In 2010, there were 12 options to select for race as well as Other. Spanish/Hispanic/Latino heritage was asked in a separate question.

It is no wonder we have such a hard time talking about race. Not only is it a painful subject in itself, but even the terms and categories are confusing and fluid. Walking through this process has made me see the importance of including minority voices in the discussion of racial categories and terms, because I don’t know what I don’t know. On a personal level, I need to be willing to awkwardly ask my friends of other races and ethnicities for input and be thankful when they give it. I need to realize though that they do not speak for every person in their group just as I do not speak for every White person or woman or Christian. I need to be willing to learn from people who are different from me and do what I can to make sure their voices are represented.

Julie profile pic  Julie Serven craves shalom for people and places. She enjoys writing for nonprofits, editing, helping people with literacy skills, hearing people’s stories, exploring all things OKC, yoga, NPR, and spending time with her ultracool family.