I had been working on this column for a few days, when I came upon several, major news publications (metropolitan papers and national magazines), where I discovered feature stories reporting on "talking about race." Most of those potentially useful discussions tip-toed around the subject, apparently restricted and controlled by fear that honest, open dialogue would precipitate loud denunciation, condemnation, violent criticism - even economic retaliation by mindless, selfish activists. In sum, they accomplished nothing.
That's sad, because, as Justice Harry Blackmun observed, back in 1978: "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race." But taking account of race has been, since then, made more difficult by the misdirected efforts of various, politically motivated racial leaders (e.g., Jackson and Abernathy), and especially by foolish efforts to improve racial images by simply changing our language. For example, illegal Mexican immigrants have magically became "Hispanics" and "Blacks" morphed to the inaccurate, inappropriate and misleading term "African-Americans."
I find it especially interesting that most of us are endlessly fascinated with human differences but are today unable, unwilling and even prohibited from discussing obvious (sometimes bothersome) racial and ethnic characteristics. When a news reporter writes about an incident directly involving humans, he almost always adds adjectives such as "high school student, mother, father of five, soldier, fireman, farmer, homeless, Italian American, infant, 7-foot, swim suit model, teenage, blond, attractive," etc. He does that because we want to be able to picture the person being reported on. But lately, we are increasingly prohibited from identifying persons by some of the more significant characteristics, such as race, skin color, hair type, eye color, body type, religion or ethnicity.
Characteristics, such as race, are vital elements in attempting to picture or identify anyone, but irrational groups, committees and politicians have made the use of race next to impossible. For example, a useful term, coined by anthropologists some 150 years back, in their attempt to study mankind, is "Negroid," which they established to categorize a dark-skinned, curly-haired race of peoples found in Africa, mainly south of the Sahara Desert.
They then had also observed that there was another large group of black-skinned people who lived far from Africa (primarily in Australia) and had significantly different body and facial features than Africans; this second race of black-skinned humans was called "Australoids."
Yes, today, there are clearly discernible differences between black-skinned Australoids, and the Negroids of sub-Saharan Africa. Is that important? Well, if an Australoid, living in South Africa, commits a terrible crime, isn't it better that the police look for an identifiable Australoid, rather than for a "black person," which includes just about everyone?
It's well past time for us to take a deep breath and try to deal rationally and unemotionally with racial, sexual, ethnic and other words describing the way we are. Simply prohibiting the use of any one word will not change reality. We, each of us, earn our reputation for what we do, how we act in public and the manner in which we interact with others of all races, religions, ethnicities, etc. If someone is obnoxious in appearance and/or behavior, changing the name of whatever race he might be won't alter the way he, and thus his race, is perceived by those around him. It's not the name of one's race that is most important; it's how one lives his life, while associating amicably (i.e., not confrontationally) with others, that counts.
Often times, race becomes blended as bi-racial couples bear children; that presents a challenge in racial categorization, but jumping thoughtlessly to convenient terms, such as "African-American," only adds to confusion, because millions of native Africans (the entire Mediterranean coast) are Caucasoid, rather than Negroid (which is erroneously and misleadingly assumed in the term "African-American"). That confusion and block to racial discussions was vividly illustrated recently, when an experienced news commentator had trouble referring to the native population of South Africa: He began by attempting to call them "African (something)," like the familiar "African-American," then caught himself, and floundered about a bit before resorting to "black Africans," which, obviously, includes all dark-skinned persons on that continent, rather than just in South Africa, along with such as the Australoids.
The key to racial harmony, or however close man can ever get to that, is in each minority race, ethnicity or culture either working hard to respect and conform to the social structure in which it desires to live and work or else moving to where the majority culture is more like what they want. I have lived, successfully and happily, in cultures such as those of the British, Japanese, Italian, Moslem, Turkish, Buddhist and Hindu. In each instance, I was a small minority, but, by minimizing or hiding any seemingly offensive custom, habit or practice I might have had, and by behaving, in as much as possible, like the majority population when in public, I got along just fine; all others could do the same and most of the racial frictions would seem to vanish.
An incident at the Nairobi, Kenya, airport drove home that lesson to me; others might well learn from it as well. As our aircraft made ready to land at Nairobi, a well-groomed, lithe, dark-skinned man in a neat, European suit walked to the front of the cabin, from where he eloquently welcomed us all to his country.
He received an enthusiastic round of applause and, I am certain, was viewed without prejudice by all aboard.
Once on the ground, we lined up to process through immigration. An "African-American" (I use that misleading and destructive term regretfully and unhappily) was in that line. He had an Afro hairdo (which was unseen in Nairobi); covered his eyes, even indoors, with large, flashy purple-lens sunglasses; wore a loud Aloha shirt accentuated at the neck by large, fake, gold jewelry; and held a large, loudly blaring boom box on one shoulder.
He moved slowly down the line, prancing in seemingly animalistic fashion. Native (i.e., "black") security guards soon approached and led him, still gyrating to the primitive beat of his bothersome portable loudspeakers, away out of sight and sound. My escort, which the U.S. Embassy had thoughtfully provided to help us get settled in the city, explained that the locals are embarrassed by such behavior, which is there seen as "typical" of (African-Americans) visiting Kenya.
In effect, "black" Africans were racially biased against "black" Americans. I then thought, as I do today, that if "African-Americans" would observe and emulate the social behavior of the majority society in which they live, most or all of the perceived racial discrimination would disappear. Should they be uncomfortable with "acting white" (as many "blacks" denigratingly refer to their own kind who have led especially successful lives in the United States), they always have the option of moving back to whichever nation (e.g. Senegal or Liberia) they think might be a better fit for them.
Fact is, of course, unless they then behaved properly (in dress, grooming, speech and public behavior), they'd be perhaps even more discriminated against there than when they were back in the States.
Race, religion and ethnicity can cause problems for humans everywhere, but those are minimized by intelligent observation and study of the majority culture, followed by care to act in an acceptable fashion - at least while in public. During the Second World War, as hundreds of thousands of U.S. military poured into the tight little British Islands, the Brits soon began using the ethnic insult "Yanks" (essentially, "uncouth, boorish, rude, upstart colonials") when referring to those troops. That was largely due to the fact that we made little or no attempt to assimilate and instead acted in a superior and infuriating manner. I recall hearing the Brits mumble that "The Yanks are oversexed, overpaid and over here."
Whether "black" or of some other skin color, whether Jewish, Mohammedan, Christian or Hindu, no matter your politics or social preferences, if you try - really try - to respect, honor and, at least publicly, follow the mores and social customs of the majority with which you live, perceived persecution for whatever reasons will vanish. Foolish, thoughtless tactics, such as creating phony holidays intended only to conflict with those of the existent majority (e.g., Kwanzaa); developing a unique and regressive language; adopting a religion incompatible with that of the majority; dressing and grooming in unusual, distinct and offensive fashion; and/or intentionally and unnecessarily naming one's children to be significantly different from the mainstream are acts sure to divide rather than bring together the races. Repeatedly banning words (e.g., the "n-word") or randomly picking new ethnic or racial names (e.g., "Latinos") does nothing to solve racial and ethnic problems.
Racial and ethnic differences go far beyond skin color and will continue to exist as major factors in the human condition for as far as I can imagine. The only way to minimize or eliminate friction between races and ethnicities is for each to attempt to understand at least something about the other, and for minorities to either accept and publicly imitate and emulate the regional majority or move to where they themselves are part of the majority.
Of Cabbages and Kings is a syndicated column by J.G. Nash. Pertinent comment may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.