On Monday’s episode of Good Morning America, co-anchor Amy Robach referred to “what one might assume should be a role reserved for colored people.” As a consequence, Robach was forced to apologize, clarifying that she meant to say “people of color.” The idea that there should be roles reserved for people of color, like the water fountains of yore, was left unchallenged. Water is cheap and movie roles are dear, so the former is racist while the latter is empowerment.
Many on social media rolled their eyes at Robach’s apology and backpedalling. The NAACP—The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—can hardly be considered some sort of covert KKK group. The acronym POC (for “People of Color”) is a very au courant term to collectively discuss blacks and non-white Hispanics, as well as other groups a speaker might see fit to include. The two terms are nearly grammatically identical. What’s the fuss?
The fuss is that the term “people of color” is unambiguously racist, though not for the reasons popularly claimed. What non-PC people often don’t understand is the role that language policing provides for progressives. Using jargon is one of the quickest and easiest ways to demonstrate that a person is who they are presenting themselves to be. Conversely, saying the wrong thing is immediate proof that we are dealing with someone who doesn’t belong.
Until extremely recently, progressives had a monopoly on race-related speech in America. They didn’t hold this monopoly in the sense of complete and utter control. Rather, it was a monopoly akin to how monopolies operate in industry: they so completely dominate their particular market that their competitors can be ignored as irrelevant, and certainly are powerless to effect change. Everyone could always literally say George Carlin’s seven words, but it was only within the last couple of decades that there has been space to actually say them on television without consequence or retribution.
Many have made the observation that the term “African-American” is grossly imprecise. The phrase is now frequently used to describe Caribbean Americans as well as non-American Africans. The nadir of its use might be when CNN anchor Chris Cuomo used it to describe a French terrorist last year. In practice, “African-American” is simply a euphemistic way of saying “black.” In other words, “African-American” is literally wrong but functionally appropriate—because the function of a euphemism is to reference something without actually saying it.
Most Americans don’t know that referring to “Eskimos” is forbidden north of the border, with the preferred term being “Inuit”. Much as with “African-Americans,” however, there are people-formerly-known-as-Eskimos whose tribes actually aren’t Inuit. Yet the term is in use because it serves its purpose: it demonstrates that the speaker is trying to be sensitive and is with the program. The terms are used to identify the subject so much as the speaker, specifically to identify a given speaker as part of the in-group. Like the password to some underground club, the right cue is more important than the literal accuracy of what is actually being said. The doorman waves patrons in regardless of whether or not the crow actually flies at midnight.
We are social animals, and as such the vast majority of human beings prefer to be part of the in-group (which for many, especially in urban areas, means the progressive milieu). This makes perfect sense. The right positioning helps with everything from getting a job to getting laid. As a consequence of this psychology, progressives are left with a problem. It costs nothing for someone to adopt the correct term in their speech. So as a “proper” term becomes popularized and pervasive, it inevitably loses its function of distinguishing “good” people from those who are simply trying to pass.
The PC solution to this problem is to constantly change language in order to maintain some semblance of verbal social cues. Colored became Negro, became Black, became Afro-American, became African-American. Someone using the wrong term is “obviously” using outdated speech and therefore can be dismissed by “right-thinking people” as having outdated thoughts. There are few things that progressive, urban elites like more than presenting the appearance of being on the cutting edge of social thought. What, you don’t subscribe to The New Yorker? You really should be reading it.
Videos like The ABC of Sex Education for Trainables (a term Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize as valid any longer) and books like Helping the Retarded to Know God (uh oh, the “R” word!) are awkwardly amusing just from the titles alone. Clearly, the creators of these works had an earnest interest in making life better for the mentally disabled. But seeing such titles nowadays is the equivalent of looking at the outfits in old high school yearbooks. Everyone is obviously trying to look good — but how could anyone actually think that they do? Get with the times!
Though unlikely in the very extreme, it is theoretically possible that Robach is some sort of closet white supremacist. If that were the case, however, it would be equally unlikely that “colored people” would be her slur of choice. Thanks to social media, we don’t have to wonder about what terms white supremacists like to use. Even a marginally prominent colored Afro-American black person of African-American color gets it tweeted at them dozens of times a day.
Yet in a sense, it is still certainly fair for many to say that Robach was being racist. In the same way that the PC people perceive “the N-word” when hearing phrases like “colored” or “Negro,” non-PC people are hearing the wrong thing when they encounter the term “racist.” Literally speaking, a racist is someone who harbors prejudice or animosity toward others of a particular race. But for PC progressives, a “racist” is simply someone who doesn’t share their ideology. No one argues that this country is splitting into two (or more) cultures. It should come as no surprise that these two cultures are increasingly speaking different languages as well.
Michael Malice is the author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. He is also the subject of Harvey Pekar’s graphic novel Ego & Hubris and the co-author of five other books. Follow him on Twitter @michaelmalice.