Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.
DEAR READERS: I have stepped away from my daily column for two weeks to finish writing my next book, which is due to be published next fall. As I sequester myself, noodling over this memoir, I hope you’ll enjoy these topical “best of” questions and answers while I’m away. Today’s questions deal with awkward terminology.
DEAR AMY: I’ve been confused about something for several years, and I’m hoping that maybe some of your readers can clear this up for me. It seems that lately, for a person with black or brown skin of African descent, the PC term to use is “African-American.” I find this to be quite ridiculous, as the large majority of blacks in this country are of many races, including white, American Indian and Hispanic, and haven’t been able to trace their roots to Africa for many generations. My race is considered “white,” and I have ancestors that trace back to areas all over Europe. I don’t refer to myself as “European-American,” nor do we use that term for the large number of white Americans who trace their roots back to Europe. The blacks I personally know prefer to be called “black,” but it seems that everyone is afraid to use that term anymore. If you’re a first-generation American from another part of the world, I can see how the hyphenation “works.” But in the end, aren’t most of us simply “Americans”? What do black Americans really want to be called, and why?
An American in Florida
DEAR AMERICAN: In America, being white is the default position. You and I and other whites of European descent don’t have to describe and define our race in the course of everyday life because we are the ones doing the describing. When was the last time you heard a prominent white American described as “white,” where race identifiers are routinely used to identify everyone else?
If American Indians want to be referred to as “Natives,” by others, even when they might refer to themselves as “Indians,” then that should be their choice. If Latinos prefer that term to “Hispanics,” then their preference should be respected. I’m aware of Americans several generations removed from the old country who would like to be known as Italian — or Irish-Americans. So be it.
In my mind, people have a right to define themselves and to ask that others refer to them using their preferred term. If that term changes over the decades (could you imagine referring to a black or brown American as “colored” — the way whites did when I was a child?), then these changes are a result of our becoming more sophisticated and respectful. Mainly, this is simply respectful. But if that’s PC, then I’m all for it.
Take heart, though. As the racial makeup of this country changes, either we’ll all become “Americans,” or you and I will be searching for a terminology that suits us, because the majority non-white American population will need to find a way to describe us. I’d be happy to run responses from other readers who might want to weigh in on this issue and/or state a preference. (April 2006)
DEAR AMY: I feel terrible. At a 4-year-old’s birthday party, I stood talking to three other moms from my son’s preschool class. One of the moms was wearing a blouse that looked to me like maternity clothes. You guessed it. I asked, “Are you expecting?” I could tell instantly that I’d made a mistake. She said, “No,” and we sort of laughed at the awkward moment. I later apologized to her in the parking lot, explaining about her blouse, but it sounded lame. I know that what I said was potentially very hurtful — maybe she was sensitive about her weight (as most of us are), or trying to conceive another child. I don’t know how to make it right. I feel horribly guilty about my inconsiderate question. Do you have any suggestions about anything I can do to make her feel better?
DEAR DOPE: Stop. Stop before you kill again. You committed a faux pas. You apologized. Don’t make things worse by continuing to bring it up, which would remind you both of this embarrassing episode.
The blouse, by now, has hit the dustbin, and you’ve learned a lesson in mommy diplomacy. It is never a good idea to ask about a pregnancy, unless a woman invites you to. (May 2006)