Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Race, part 1

Because Phil's definition of race is on the long side, I'm dividing it into two parts--the first presented here this week, and the second presented next week (I post every Wednesday in case you hadn't noticed). If this is your first time here and you don't know who Phil is, please scroll down to my first post, in which I introduce him and the ideas behind this blog. Thanks.


race. In its biological sense, the term refers to a category of people distinguished by such inherited physical characteristics as skin color, certain facial features, and quality or form of hair. Race may also signify the prejudices, beliefs, and policies called racial or racist. Behind the term is an extremely vague, misleading, and intrac­table folk concept about how people are to be categorized.


Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dic­tionary (1993) derives race from the Middle French word meaning "genera­tion," from Old Italian razza (1580). It has also been said to stem from the Arabic word ras (chief, head, origin). European seafaring voyages of explo­ration of the late fifteenth century brought an increasing awareness of the "racial otherness" of the peoples of the world newly encountered by Westerners. By the eighteenth century, certain classes of human beings were referred to as races, a term that had earlier been used for plant and animal populations. The many schemas of "race" that eventually emerged often consisted of extremely broad, arbitrary, biologically defined groups such as negroid, mongoloid, and caucasoid. These were once referred to by largely inaccurate color term--black, yellow, and white--and viewed by many scien­tists as subspecies of the human popula­tion. For years, scientists and laypeople alike tended to rank such groups behav­iorally, culturally, and intellectually.


The biological concept of race has fallen from grace in anthropology be­cause it forces human populations into a few discrete categories of only ex­tremely crude scientific validity. One problem is that the characteristics believed to define a race do not adhere. Many people of India, for example, have the straight hair of Caucasians but dark skin. For thousands of years, groups have intermingled their genes, making it im­possible to speak of genetically isolated "races." The biological similarities be­tween groups are more obvious to the scientist than the differences: genetic research has shown that less than 2 per­cent of our genes differ from one indi­vidual to another. Because there are no innate, unchangeable features that define groups, anthropologists now favor alter­native terms. Among these are population. gene frequencies, and vari­ability.


The pertinent question about race is not what it is but how the concept is used and the significance it carries in a soci­ety. In general, race has provided U.S. society with an important way of think­ing about (and dominating) certain groups and a way groups have for iden­tifying themselves. In other societies, such as Brazil's, where, although racial discrimination exists, social class is be­lieved to be more important in distin­guishing people than skin color, the term has a different significance and may even be irrelevant.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the label "schwarze"

Because I posted last week about honky, a term used to describe whites, I thought this week I'd focus on schwarze, a Yiddish term used to label blacks. This word comes up in my novel several times. It's right there on the second page. In its most basic sense, schwarze is the German word for black.

Phil Herbst doesn't have an entry for schwarze in his encyclopedia of ethnic bias, so I've turned to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish. Rosten uses a different spelling than I did: shvartz (adjective), shvartzer (masculine noun and adjective), and shvartzeh (feminine noun and adjective).

As Rosten says, these "became 'inside' words for Jews--cryptonyms for Negro servants or employees." Also, according to Rosten, the usage of these words declined with the civil rights era. I admit that I heard these words with frequency as I grew up, and I also believe that Rosten is right about the decline in usage. The term was dehumanizing on several levels--lumping an entire people into a subservient class and attempting to find a way to talk about them without their knowing (the way one might spell out words when one doesn't want the children to know what's being said). Along these same lines, I've heard that some families used the word Canadians when they wanted to disguise a comment about a black person. Canadians?

When I try to think about the label schwarze in the most compassionate way, I imagine my grandmother--arriving in this country from some little town in Poland, knowing no English, completely disoriented by the entire experience of departure, travel, arrival, and adaptation--and then seeing an African American person for the first time in her life. Perhaps she would turn to her husband, who had been here for many years before she arrived, and say, "Schwarze?" Or perhaps one of the young daughters who had made the difficult journey with her would turn to her with this same question.

This is not to excuse the continued use of the term in a dehumanizing way. But still, seen in its most benign light, the source of such language is likely discomfort with difference, and a cluelessness about what, if anything, that difference means.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Post #3: the word "honky"

The word honky makes an appearance in my novel, especially in the first chapter. So I was particularly interested to see that one theory links its origin to Detroit. True, Phil is skeptical about that theory, but even the fact that it is floating out there somewhere worked for me in the metaphorical stew of novel writing. Not to keep repeating, but in case you don't scroll down to the first entry to find out who Phil is, he is Philip Herbst, author of The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, and the definition of honky that you are about to read (as well as the other definitions presented on this blog) come from him.

honky, honkie, honkey (pl. honkies, honkeys). Sometimes capitalized. Frequently abusive term used by black people primarily for a white person, often male. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (1991), honky has been used in Los Angeles for Chicanos as well as white people. Native Americans, adopting the term from popular 1960s black usage, have also applied it to white people or similar, light-skinned, middle-class people. Although the term is derisive, white people may not regard it as such, newspaper columnist Anna Quindlen argues that "being called a honky is not in the same league as being called a nigger," referring to the lack of impact the epithet has on white people, who are less vulnerable to slurs than are people of color. In the 1960s white supporters of the Black Panthers wore buttons that read "Honkies for Huey," referring to Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Panthers.

The term's origin is unclear. Many argue strongly that it is a deformation of hunk, or hunky (in turn from Hun, from Hungary), a pejorative word for an immigrant central European laborer. It apparently came to he generalized in black use from the white immigrant workers, many of whom were competitors with black people in the job market, to virtually all white people. Aman (1996, 69), however, demurs at this etymology, claiming that black people had little contact with newly immigrated eastern Europeans. The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) treats it as a blend of Wolof (a language of a West African people) honq (red, pink, of light complexion) and hunky.

Others have unconvincingly said honky comes from the honking sound of pigs, the nasal tone of white people, or the dating practice of white men in Detroit who sat in their cars and honked their horns in front of the houses where their black girlfriends worked as maids. It has also been traced to honk, which was once used by musicians for a brassy music played for poor black people and the places it was played, giving rise to honkytonk, a word that later came to be reserved for the music of poor white people. Many such stories, however interesting, say more about the experiences of African Americans with white people than they do about the origins of the usage.

A “superhonkie” is a powerful white racist.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Race Riots

As I moved more deeply into my novel, I became increasingly unsure that the word riot was the correct one to use for what happened in Detroit in 1967. I especially wondered about the term race riot, as some observers saw the explosions that occurred in Detroit that year as an uprising against the police and other institutions rather than a conflict between one race and another. Even the term race is questionable. Nevertheless, I used these terms as a kind of shorthand, at a loss for something better or more accurate. In his entry on race riots, Phil Herbst gives the overview and the origins of the term (for more about Phil and his dictionary of ethnic terms, see post #1). And even if I'm still not certain precisely what to call those things, I'm a little more attuned to the questions, which I think is a good thing when it comes to labels.

Race riots. An emotion-tinged phrase often used to label outbreaks of civil disorder in black neighborhoods. Race riot is applied regardless of whether white and black citizens or members of other racial groups directly target each other, as happened in Los Angeles in 1992, or whether the direct targets become the police and National Guard, as happened in Los Angeles and Newark in the 1960s. Those who wish to convey what they see as the political significance of such events--black people's alienation from government, exclusion from society, and discrimination against them--have called these events, for example, rebellions or revolutionary uprisings, and the neighborhoods in which they take place, rebel neighborhoods. "In the African American community, xenophobia toward Hispanics and Asians, alienation from a city government run by a prototypical Negro pol, and a genocidal yet fertile youth culture primed black L.A.'s everyday people for the uprising" (George 1992, 157).

Among those who use the term race riot, many see these events and the associated looting as signs of aberrant, antisocial actions or social pathologies stereotypical of ghetto life and ignore their political character. "These are no longer riots connected with civil rights in any way. These are riots of the lawbreakers and the mad dogs against the people" (Ronald Reagan, referring to riots of the 1960s, in Fikes 1992, 83).

The expression race riot appeared in 1864, when hundreds of people were killed in rioting over black people's right to vote. It was used during the riot in St. Louis in 1917 and became even more widespread when, a year following World War I—after numerous black people had migrated to large industrial cities—there was rioting in twenty-three U.S. cities (Flexner 1976, 40). In general, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, race riot was applied to white mob action against African American groups, usually efforts to maintain racial segregation (Franklin 1970, 92). But the way the expression was used changed after World War II, particularly since the civil rights movement. Now it does not explicitly define who is attacking whom (though in the media black people are usually depicted as the rioters) or what the cause is.