Yesterday one of my (adult, Chinese) students in a group lesson checked with me to be sure she had the word "yellow" correct -- to describe her skin, she explained, motioning to her arm and then touching the skin there. Yellow skin, right? I explained that although she was right, we probably wouldn't say that anymore because it sounds derogatory. Now, before all you I'm-too-good-for-political-correctness people start rehearsing the pithy comment you're going to make about this post, please read the whole thing and realize I'm still setting up the context. Just pay attention for two seconds; it won't kill ya.
Well, the table of curious students asked me, how would you describe it, then? I told them, realizing even before the words were out of my mouth that it was going to sound weird, that someone in the U.S. might say "Asian." Sure enough, a few of them laughed. Asian? That certainly wouldn't tell them anything. What about the color?
I said we had really moved away from describing skin color, and moved toward describing various ethnic groups, usually based on geography, e.g. of Asian heritage, of African heritage, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, etc. in place of describing skin color. OK, she said, but just Asian? Well, I said, no, I mean, I might describe someone with more detail, like, "She's short, Chinese, with long black hair and dark round eyes" or something like that. And to be fair, ye PC naysayer, is it really so much better to describe Han Chinese and Japanese and Koreans and Vietnamese as "yellow" without having any clue about their ethnic and national origins, than it would be to say "Asian" without having a clue about their ethnic and national origins?
But here's the rub, about "yellow": Well, they asked me, then what if someone is Chinese but has white skin? Because some of us have white skin, they pointed out.
THIS, my naysayers, is getting to the point. Now you can start firing those comment cylinders. What this student means by white skin is not what you mean by white skin in the good ol' U.S.A. When you see someone of Asian heritage that is first and foremost what you see. You aren't going to describe her skin as white, even if she is a porcelain geisha. So don't get too high and mighty. I was reminded of discussions in Cuba with my friends about the "blancos" and "negros" there, and how in a fierce discussion about racism one night, I was fascinated to discover that people were "white" in Cuba who would be checking a different box in the U.S.A.
I told my student that if we were specifying, we would probably say "light-skinned Chinese" or "dark-skinned Chinese" person, that people often talk about light-skinned and dark-skined Latinos, too. Of course, that's still only two options, but it would definitely sound more polite and acceptable, I think, in our usage than "yellow." Then they asked me, doesn't "dark-skinned" mean "black"? And by the way, they asked, can you say "black"? I told them that dark-skinned doesn't always mean black, and that they could say black, usually, and that there are some who have made the term into a proper identifier, Black, to be capitalized, and so forth. Black, I said, sounds different in our accepted societal discourse than yellow and red, with regard to skin color. I can't think of any modern situation in which someone randomly says "yellow" or "red" in a non-pejorative way. There are just so many other and more precise ways to describe people, so as a lover of language and words I have a lot of better choices. But what do you call the American Indian/not red person, they asked? Indian is OK, I said, in a lot of tribal and American Indian Movement (AIM)-type activist circles, especially. You could also say Native American. My students know what "native" means because we expats are sold to them as "native speakers" of English. They thought about this term. "You know," I said, "native - because, well, they were in America first." And so we were back to heritage.
Obviously, skin color intertwines with heritage in so many ways ... but I think we would do well to divorce the color from the ethnicity if we want to be able to precisely describe people. But the question is, why do we need to be able to precisely describe people's skin color? Does it matter, really? What if there were a box on our driver licenses, next to hair color, eye color, and weight? Did there used to be?
I think it is foolishly naive and really wishful thinking to make the whole "we're color blind and racism doesn't exist unless you make it exist" argument. That's just hogwash. We all think about race and have ideas about race embedded in our minds--it matters what we choose to do with those ideas, though. But what I'm specifically interested in and curious about lately are the blurring, overlapping lines among skin colors and ethnic identities and nations. Why do we in the U.S. tie so many ethnicities to geographic locations and boundary lines drawn in the sand? This causes so many problems. I recently finished reading David K. Shipler's book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land and through all the messed up messed-up-ness of that conflict, I kept coming back to thinking about how fixated the Israeli Jews were/are on making a nation state for their "people." Why? That seems to be the crux of the problem, no? Why does an ethnic group of people have to have a state only for them? Don't we see this same idea in raging conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan, etc.? Sure, you can argue that colonial terrorist imperialists drawing the lines in the sand to form nations didn't help things any, either, but why? Athenian, Spartan, Abyssinian, Khmer, Cham, Navajo, Inuit... Greek? Cambodian? Why not have an ethnicity and a nationality? Why do we blur them? And how many years will it take until United States-ian can become an ethnic identity? 1,000? More? Less? Will it ever do so? I need the biologists to weigh in, here.
So if you think being an English teacher is all fun and games, well...OK, never mind, maybe you actually didn't think that.