How linguistics can alter racial perceptions

Following the election of a man raced as the first “black” president, many Americans suppose America is “post-racial” all of a sudden. But, Grinnellians—don’t forget about race just yet. Most Grinnellians anticipate the day when we can forget about race, but we don’t want to move to that ideology for the wrong reasons. We need to use race to target the problems precipitated by a history of codified or implied discrimination, disproportionately forced or prison labor, eugenic and cultural subordination.

The existence of these three historical phenomena in some capacity or their debates surrounding them in the present discourse demonstrates this need. Social theorists, though, have used racial categories to slowly heal historical ailments with racial implications. Institutions like Grinnell have used race to promote cultural and experiential diversity. But we know the categories are not perfect. In and of themselves, they have some negative effects on the populations they describe and divide. The division that race causes is evidence enough.

Americans haven’t quite leveled the playing field. To incrementally improve a system of classification I find necessary in this institution’s approach for the indeterminate future, I suggest a new term—“Afrodescent”—to describe Americans of African descent to improve the accuracy of our term, to elude the implications of black’s denotations and for something I call the “linguistic aesthetics.”

The term “black” is inaccurate because there are very few black Americans—or people for that matter. Most so called “black-people” are brown in color, of various complexions, and some are tan or a sort of yellow-tinted pale pigment common in people of European descent. I think people who can actually be classified by the word “black” are either severely burnt or suffer from a skin disorder. Given the translation of “negro” from its native Spanish to English, my disruption of using this term is identical to that of my aforementioned reasons to forget “black.” “Afrodescent” accurately encompasses the people included in the United States’ present use of black. The broad entanglement of the “one-drop rule” has led me to maintain the generalizing character of the term I hope will help this society to a point of racial equality.

Though more accurate than “black,” the term “African-American” is also inaccurate because in 2010 many African immigrants and their children live in America. The term “African-American” certainly applies to them but also describes Americans of African descent that may have been in the Americas since 1502. Yet these are distinct groups and products of very different historical circumstances. Sure, they are of African descent too, and would therefore fall under the term Afrodescent, but our society might find more accuracy in reserving “African-American” to describe Africans—that is, people from Africa and their children. After all, many so-called “African-Americans” today only have ties to Africa as a place from which their ancestors descend. Hence, this article suggests Afrodescent.

The word “black” has come to denote Americans of African descent, but the authoritative guide to the English language also defines the word as “blunder,” “soiled,” “horribly wicked” and a host of other negative definitions. People of African descent should not carry the moral depravity of what else the term for their category signifies. But they do. Since “Afrodescent” is a word fashioned in this article and academic papers I have submitted in the past year, could not bear the vileness of, say, the fourth, fifth, ninth or tenth definitions of “black.” Furthermore, the term’s tendency to bestow a lexical disadvantage on the people deemed “black” when juxtaposed with people therefore deemed “white”—a word which is alternatively defined as “pure,” “holy” and “celestial”—gives charge to “black’s” abandonment.

Part of the reason for the negative connotation comes from how bad the word sounds. While sound’s effect on any given word is more debatable than the word’s alternative definitions, it is reasonable for a reader to find some words generally more pleasant than others. Does “Afrodescent” remind you of iridescent, a word synonymous to shimmering, shining and gleaming? These synonyms are diametrical to common synonyms of black—dismal, nefarious, and vile amongst others.

Furthermore, I think people will associate “Afrodescent” with iridescent because the former is unfamiliar and the memory of the latter’s sound serves as a reflexive point of reference. Remember, the word sounds like a light bulb. In your hoodwinked auditory memories, the word glows. Light emanates from the mouths of its users. Thus, the new term transcends the present term, which seems to represent all things bad. An improved terminology would improve the function of race.

Race affects almost all spheres of everyday life in America. Many of those spheres are lop-sided. To get rid of race would be to set racist doctrine free, and it would be to ignore the historical implications for race in our society. We still need race to think critically about the racial dimensions of social inequalities and prejudices. And we still need race because we all should learn a bit more about the vitality of human unity through this framework—in the face of threats against our entire species.

Moreover, I know many readers cannot wait for the post-racial age because we know that race is imprecise, divisive and self-deprecating. But the consequences of embracing a racially-blind society too soon could draw even greater societal rifts between Americans of different races. Just ask scholars familiar with Gilberto Freyre—a Brazilian sociologist who advocated a “Racial Democracy” that resembles the racial blindness the Tea Party Movement espouses. Although he ultimately sought to get contest racist ideas like eugenics and sterilization, Freyre precipitated a racially unequal Brazil. Policymakers from his country now combat the challenges of stark social disparities along racial lines. The dark people of his country deal daily with the implications of racial-blindness ideology people credit him for starting. At the beginning of the 21st century, the school reported a student population at the highest-ranked school in Brazil was less than 8.5 percent Afrodescent and more than 70 percent white. The country consists of at least 45 percent Afrodescents.

To prevent such homogeneity and exclusion, Grinnell has invested immense resources to cultivate a diverse community. Its newly diversified environment challenges a tradition of segregation, bias-motivated behavior and the provinciality that would hold any society back. Race works as a critical cog in the mechanism this institution uses to fight battle its own history—largely a consequence of this nation’s history. If we embrace a post-racial society preemptively, we could negate decades of progress. A system of race is necessary right now. Maybe further inquiries will help us realize that the problem is not race, but the nomenclature that categorically devalues different groups. In another article or a survey of greater length, I will expand on my disruption of the term “African-American” in its present use. I will also continue to make a detailed case for why it is imperative that America, as a society, to make this change.