Obama was right to remove offensive terms from US laws – so why does the word 'alien' survive?

Dr Martin Luther King used the term 'negro' no fewer than 13 times in his most famous speech. But that was over 50 years ago. Times change and so does the significance of individual words

Rupert Cornwell@IndyVoices
Saturday 28 May 2016 11:35
The terms 'oriental' and 'negro' have been removed from federal vocabulary, but the debate over 'redskin' goes on
The terms 'oriental' and 'negro' have been removed from federal vocabulary, but the debate over 'redskin' goes on

Let us bid farewell to the words "oriental" and "negro" – at least in the vocabulary of the US federal government. A bill to that effect has just been signed into law by Barack Obama, replacing the discarded terms with "Asian-American" and "African-American".

And about time too, has been the predominant reaction – not surprisingly in a country that is an ethnic tapestry, more sensitive than any other on Earth to the nuances of racial disparagement.

Of course, the usual Obama-haters depicted the the measure as another presidential fiat and one more example of political correctness run riot. Some even claimed the offending words were being banned outright in everyday speech.

Such nonsense overlooks the fact that Obama was doing no more than ratifying a bill that Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (even in dysfunctional US politics such things do still happen). The measure cited the appearance of those words in the 1977 act setting up the federal Department of Energy, passed by Congress. Yes, as recently as 1977.

Usage seems eternal, but it can change in almost an instant.

A Native American tribe's fight to preserve its language

"Oriental" is surely an open-and-shut case. In its orginal usage, it was little more than a dismissive term for Chinese. Its near-automatic verbal partner was "wily". The term is a relic of the age of opium parlours and cheap imported Chinese labour, when California was passing its 1862 "Anti-Coolie Act", and the Chinatowns that still dot many of America’s great cities were regarded as fonts of all evil.

These days definitions have changed. But no one uses "Occidental" to denote the West, so why condescendingly lump together Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Malay and others – half or more of the entire human race?

In 2016, Chinese-Americans alone constituted more than 1 per cent of the US population, and Chinese is the country’s third most widely spoken language. Asian-Americans are one of the most creative and dynamic elements in the modern American mosaic. So much for the "yellow peril".

"Negro", though, is a slightly different matter. The word fell out of favour in the late 1960s, when black power activists argued that it harked back to the slavery era, and perpetuated a slave-master mindset between blacks and whites. To me at least, the word feels less insulting than antiquated, even summoning up an anachronistic dignity.

In his ‘"I Have a Dream" Speech – among the most memorable in all history and the rhetorical Everest of the civil rights era – Dr Martin Luther King used the term "negro" no fewer than 13 times. But that was over 50 years ago. Times change and so does the significance of individual words.

Or do they?

Take the strange case of the Washington Redskins, our local NFL franchise. For decades, the team’s name has been the object of fierce controversy. Linguistic scholars deemed the word "Redskin" a racial slur; for the mighty forces of liberal political correctness, the name was public enemy No 1.

The city’s leading newspaper, The Washington Post, has long refused to use it on its editorial pages, while no less than the country’s first black president called for the team to change it. Activists have even launched a legal battle to deprive the Redskins of trademark protection for what they insist is a racist term. That fight is likely to end up in the US Supreme Court.

But a few days before Obama struck "oriental" and "negro" from the federal lexicon, a bombshell dropped. Lo and behold, according to a poll by that very same Post, 90 per cent of American Indians (more correctly "Native Americans") don’t find the name offensive. Seven out of 10 don’t consider "Redskins" to be disrespectiful of Native Americans, while 80 per cent insist they wouldn’t be upset if called that by a non-Native American.

Cue for quiet rejoicing by Daniel Snyder, the team’s owner, who all along has vowed not to change the name – even as many other Indian-related sports team symbols across the country were being withdrawn. Snyder’s argument was precisely the one the poll seemed to confirm. But what is really going on?

Some argue it’s a classic example of a "reclaimed epithet", when an insulted group embrace a slur word as a point of pride, at least among the group (see Tottenham Hotspur supporters referring to themselves as "Yid Army", or the use among some blacks of the n-word variant, "nigga"). But in the case of "Redskin", four-fifths of Native Americans say they’re not bothered even when they’re called that by a non-Native American (or should that be "Paleface"?) Perhaps Washington’s NFL team owner has a point when he claims that the term "Redskin", far from being a slur, pays tribute to the strength and bravery of those we used to call 'Indians' – attributes that every sports team covets.

And while we’re on the subject of loaded race words, three cheers for an unlikely protagonist: the venerable Library of Congress. A couple of months ago, the Library removed "illegal aliens" and "aliens", from its list of subject headings, replacing them with "undocumented immigrant", and "immigrant". As a green-card holder but non-US citizen, I fall into the latter category.

Predictably, Congressional Republicans were up in arms, railing away again against political correctness gone crazy. But "alien" truly is a slur. It conveys the image of someone so different that he or she is not so much from a different race as from a different planet – and hostile (not to mention illegal) to boot.

The sooner "alien" goes the way of "negro" and "oriental" the better.

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