Recently, The New York Times asked it’s readers to submit a small sampling of terms that they consider “cringeworthy”. In response, The Times’ readers outlined their objections to specific labels with comments like these:
|The use of the word “race” as a noun or adjective. The human genome has been sequenced and it has been established as the scientific consensus that “race” as a biological category, a genetic typology or a scientific reality does not exist. — Woullard Lett|
|I was damn tired of filling out “other” on tests and forms. It reminded me that I didn’t matter enough in the grand scheme. — Makoto R.|
|“Nationality,” which is used in ignorance far too often. Like this lovely encounter I had: “What nationality are you?” [Blank stare.] “American.” — Michelle Steinhebel|
|The phrase that absolutely drives me crazy is “racial tolerance.” We don’t wish to be tolerated like petulant children. Our goal has always been racial equality. — Chuck Rowland|
|“Ethnic cleansing.” It implies that the victim of genocide is inherently “dirty.” Why is it O.K. to linguistically side with the perpetrator? — Lea Bult|
|The new term “Latinx.” I don’t think the term Latino or Latina needs to be revised. I also cringe when “Latino” is labeled as a race. There are many races within the Latin ethnic designation. — Carmen Erasmus|
|“Spicy, exotic.” I’m not a food and I am Westernized. Just because I have hips and dark hair doesn’t give you that permission. — Diana Saez|
|“Caucasian.” I don’t get it. The Caucasus is a mountain range in Europe! — Carol Urovsky|
|I am white and my wife is Ethiopian and Indian. Well-meaning educated people still sometimes refer to our children as “mulatto.” Can’t stand that word. I view it as dated as “negro” or “colored.” — David Nozick|
|“Unconscious bias.” I feel that the term allows some to continue with their discriminatory behavior and micro aggressions without being held accountable for them. — Carmen Martínez Novo
Is this the tip of the iceberg?
As people and social creatures, we possess a need or, at least, a strong tendency to categorize, differentiate, and compartmentalize anything new or unfamiliar by attaching and assigning labels to anyone who doesn’t look like us. Then there’s the most fundamental and basic need to ‘belong’ which leads us to identify with a group in which the collective others most closely reflect our personal, cultural, familial identities and easily identifiable external characteristics.
Our brain is incredibly complex and perceives, processes, stores and recalls information that influences our worldviews. While we tend to see members of our own group as individuals, we view those of other groups are attributed through our communicative interactions. Stereotypes emerge from the group-identification process which ascribes on how we relate to one another. We assign characteristics, traits and qualities to those who meet the general criteria determined by limited contact. When encountering others who match the easily identifiable external markers, we begin to place anyone else in possession of the same markers in that box.
Dog, cat. Hot, cold. Black, white. Male, female.
We constantly categorize. We have to. Sorting anything from furniture to animals to concepts into different filing folders inside our brains is something that happens automatically, and it helps us function. In fact, categorization has an evolutionary purpose: Assuming that all mushrooms are poisonous, that all lions want to eat you, is a very effective way of coping with your surroundings. Forget being nuanced about nonpoisonous mushrooms and occasionally non-hungry lions — certitude keeps you safe.
But a particular way of categorizing can be inaccurate, and those false categories can lead to prejudice and stereotyping. Much psychological research into bias has focused on how people “essential-ize” certain categories, which boils down to assuming that these categories have an underlying nature that is tied to inherent and immutable qualities. Like the broader sorting mechanism of categorization, an essentialist cognitive “style” emerges very early in our development and may to some extent be hardwired.
.Psychologist Susan Gelman of the University of Michigan explains it this way: The category of “things that are white” is not essentialized. It simply contains anything that happens to share the attribute of “white”: cars, paint, paper and so on. There’s nothing deep that unites the members of this category. But now consider white and black people. Like other human attributes (gender, age and sexual orientation, for example), race tends to be strongly — and inaccurately — essentialized. This means that when you think of people in that category, you rapidly or even automatically come up with assumptions about their characteristics[my term: immaculate perceptions] — characteristics that your brain perceives as unchanging and often rooted in biology.
Common stereotypes with the category “African-Americans,” for example, include “loud,” “good dancers,” and “good at sports.” (One recent study found that white people also tend to essentialize African-Americans as magical — test subjects associated black faces with words like “paranormal” and “spirit.”) Of course, these assumptions are false. Indeed, essentialism about any group of people is dubious — women are not innately gentle, old people are not inherently feebleminded — and when it comes to race, the idea of deep and fundamental differences has been roundly debunked by scientists.
Even people who know that essentializing race is wrong can’t help absorbing the stereotypes that are pervasive in our culture. But essentialist thinking varies greatly between individuals. It’s kind of like neurosis: We all have a little bit, but in some people, it’s much more pronounced. Yet, the good news is that, upon realization of this tendency, we can consciously re-wire our brains to go in another direction.
The Implicit Association Test boils down to how your mind automatically links certain categories. “It’s really how strongly you associate your category of ‘black people’ with the general category of ‘good things’ or ‘bad things,’”. “The capacity to discern ‘us’ from ‘them’ is fundamental in the human brain,” David Amodio wrote in a 2014 paper. “Although this computation takes just a fraction of a second, it sets the stage for social categorization, stereotypes, prejudices, intergroup conflict and inequality and, at the extremes, war and genocide.” Call it the banality of prejudice.
Share your thoughts on these “cringe-worthy” words used to define and divide us from one another. But, tell me, why not- “I am unique”, “I am who I am”, or simply stated, ” I am human!”?
4 thoughts on “The “Cringe-worthy” Race-Related Descriptors That Offend Are…”
Recently, I read an article on Huffington Post by a transgender journalist who kept using the term “cisgender” in relation to…well, absolutely everyone who isn’t transgender. It was an otherwise bravely honest and informative piece, but this new-fangled term used to categorize 98% of the world’s population struck me as something that may be ultimately self-defeating. The invention of a new term for “others” coming from someone in a demographic that is just starting to get the attention it truly deserves smacks of desperation and considering how misunderstood the transgender experience still is to most of us, I felt that this artificial term to denote the separation of their “us” from the larger “them” would further inspire skeptical people to completely ignore their very real plight.
It seems that we aren need to generalize, categorize and label/group one another or the ‘other’. I am confounded by this, because as rational individuals, we know that we can rewire ourselves to refrain from this. More often than not, we will offend someone else, and even if we label ourselves, it mustn’t be a means toward discrimination, separation or divisiveness. Again, why can’t we be ‘humans’, who may think, look, and live differently, but of the same ‘whole’ group?… Just respectful to and of ‘others’!
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Thanks for your comments! I appreciate you and look forward to more sharing!
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“Immaculate Perceptions”!! Love it. Great description. Love the post!