Y’all know by now how I feel about Glenn Beck, the right-wing genius who makes Bill O’Reilly look like Al Sharpton. Beck is a total douche, totally full of it, a font of idiocy spewing hate and controversy just to get ratings. Sad. But his recent comments about why it should be okay to call Black people “colored” have taken my disdain for him to a whole new level.
On his radio show yesterday, Beck was describing the ways and parts of the world in which the word “colored” is used to identify certain ethnic groups, and went so far as to suggest that only in America are “we” made to feel bad about the desire to use the word “colored” instead of “African-American.” Here he is, in his own words:
“African-American” was not made to do anything except try to create a superman. “Oh don’t you dare feel bad about yourself, you’re African-American!” No, you’re an American…. Look at what happened with Martin Luther King, that makes you an American!…. And sure this country sucked for blacks…. but it doesn’t now. Be proud to be an American.
Okay, first of all, the martyrdom of Martin Luther King is not what makes anyone an American citizen, thank you very much. Jesus. What a way to spit in the face of a hero right after the opening of his memorial. That’s class. Secondly, and unfortunately, the commentary gets worse. Beck’s co-host chimed in, “I’ve always felt it’s such an insult too, the idea of African-American, that they for some reason need to have some qualifier or some distinction as if they’re different than us. They’re Americans, they’re just like us.”
Ah, but there’s the rub. Them and us. Us and them. In Beck’s mind, in his co-host’s mind, there is no “we.” Life is literally black and white. A few weeks ago, when London was burning, a friend posted a link to this insane BBC interview with British historian David Starkey who blamed the riots on black culture, saying, “the problem is that the whites have become black — a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion — and black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together; this language, which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”
In response, Black author Dreda Say Mitchell offered, “Of all the theories we’ve heard this week, this whole notion that this is down to the way that some young people may choose to speak, people like myself who maybe talk in a particular way,” and then was interrupted by Starkey, who countered, “You don’t talk like them.” Mitchell replied, “This is the problem. It’s a them and us culture. We can’t keep thinking of this as a them and us argument…. What we need to be doing is we need to be thinking about ourselves as not individual communities, as one community. We need to stop talking about them and us, we need to be talking about our children. We need to be using words like we.”
So there you have it, Glenn. I am not a part of the “us” you reference when you talk about the people who feel bad about not being able to reference “them” as colored. I don’t know anybody (except maybe my dead Grandfather) who harbors a deep, burning desire to use words like “colored” to describe a Black person. I mean, why stop there, Glenn? Why not just call a Black man boy? Negro? “Hey you, former slave!” That’s easier to say than “African-American,” right?
Perhaps most importantly, Beck’s argument is based around the faulty theory that Black people are demanding to be called African-American, which – in my experience – is total shit. Not one of my Black friends has ever referred to themselves as African-American nor have they requested that I refer to them as such. Black people have been calling themselves Black since the late 60’s, and according to this piece on Slate, “black had become the majority preference by 1974.” The word colored hasn’t been an acceptable descriptor for Black people since the 1920’s, when W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington advocated a switch to negro. Negro went out of fashion during the civil rights era, and the 1980’s ushered in the use of the term African-American. The phrase African-American was popularized by Jesse Jackson, but has pretty much fallen to the wayside in favor of – as a girl I used to work with liked to describe herself – Plain Old Black.
In 2004, John H McWhorter penned an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times called, “Why I’m Black, Not African American.” In it, he writes:
My roots trace back to working-class Black people – Americans, not foreigners – and I’m proud of it. I am John Hamilton McWhorter the Fifth. Four men with my name and appearance, doing their best in a segregated America, came before me. They and their dearest are the heritage that I can feel in my heart, and they knew the sidewalks of Philadelphia and Atlanta, not Sierra Leone.
So, we will have a name for ourselves – and it should be Black. “Colored” and “Negro” had their good points but carry a whiff of Plessy vs. Ferguson and Bull Connor about them, so we will let them lie. “Black” isn’t perfect, but no term is.
Since the late 1980s, I have gone along with using “African American” for the same reason that we throw rice at a bride – because everybody else was doing it. But no more. From now on, in my writings on race I will be returning to the word I grew up with, which reminds me of my true self and my ancestors who worked here to help make my life possible: Black.
Strangely, McWhorter sort of bolsters the idea of Beck’s nationalism, the author stressing his identity as an American, not his African roots. The very important, very obvious point that Beck is missing, tho, is that just because the phrase “African-American” doesn’t really work for Black people, “colored” is NOT a suitable alternative.
Beck is creating drama here where there is none, of course, just trying to stir the pot. (I mean, I feel like rants about having to use PC terminology went out with the millennium), but this discussion on his show points to the fact that latent racism is still alive and well in America, and that as parents we do need to be able to address skin color as it pertains to our children. I can’t say that my daughter is color blind, nor do I expect her to be. She has noted on a few occasions that one of her friends or my friends has dark skin, and when it comes up, I just say, “Yep.” And that’s that. It’s a non-issue. Since we live in New York, my daughter doesn’t view life through the lens of the white majority. My daughter and I are just two ladies with pale-ish skin living amongst a glorious sea of people of many different shades, a tiny part of a diverse whole. I don’t expect my daughter not to notice the skin color of her friends, in the same way that I don’t expect her not to notice their hair or eye color. But unlike Beck, my daughter understands that when it comes to being “colored,” that’s something we all are. As my editor Mira Jacob put it when I sent this story in, “I hope he’s specifying! I prefer “medium dark” colored, being Indian and all.” Exactly.
This mother asks, “Does my three-year-old have race issues?”