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Home > Culture and Society

Racial terminology: what's the beef?

15 October 2004

Showing some of his father's talent for offending people, Prince Charles recently got into trouble for calling native Americans 'red Indians'. The whole thing was a bit of a storm in a teacup - he used the term when referring to childhood stories he'd enjoyed. It's a bit unfair, but who cares?

The whole issue of racial terminology is actually quite fascinating, once you go beyond pub-bore assertions like: 'Political correctness has gone mad; rapists are called non-voluntary intercourse facilitators these days, apparently.'

The accepted group term for non-white people is 'ethnic' minorities, but have you ever bothered to look it up? The WH Smith dictionary defines 'ethnic' as 'of or being human races or large groups classed according to common traits.' Which is like defining 'cheese' as 'edible product made from cheese'. Unfortunately with 'ethnic', another definition is: 'of an exotic, especially peasant culture'.

Talk about a backhanded compliment. Who wouldn't be happy to be considered exotic? But an exotic peasant? No thanks. The convolutions of racial terminology are quite odd, but even odder when you consider that many people (particularly geneticists) would deny that race exists in the first place. Races are not genetically distinct groups in the world of nuts-and-bolts DNA.

From a scientific point of view, common definitions of race do sometimes work well to divide groups according to genetically determined propensities for certain diseases, eg. sickle cell disease, which is usually found among people of largely African or Mediterranean descent. (Europeans needn't feel left out of racially determined ailments: they're more likely to get cystic fibrosis.)

But while race has certain medical uses, the overall genetic variance between different races is incredibly slight. Some groups do differ genetically from others, but how groups are divided depends on which genes you choose to look at. In a nutshell, you might fit into one group based on your skin colour genes but another based on a different characteristic.

Many studies have confirmed that roughly 90 percent of human genetic variation occurs within a population living on a given continent, whereas about only 10 percent of the variation distinguishes different continental populations. (After having gone to the trouble of looking these factoids up, it's just a shame TFT doesn't have more racist readers.)

So there's a soupcon of science, but in everyday life we use the concept of race all the time, whether you're a sociologist or a member of Combat 18.

And noone could deny there've been some strange convolutions in the world of racial descriptions. Cast your mind back a few years and you may recall attempts by Asians to call themselves black. It didn't catch on, and the motives were unclear. 'Asian' is a more meaningful term for, er, Asians than 'black'. It tends to mean people whose skin colour and ancestry means they're from South Asia, ie. places like, but not exclusively, India and Pakistan.

So why call yourself black? Was it a bit of politically motivated solidarity? Or was it an attempt to poach a bit of kudos from 'black' street culture?

Another weird bit of racial terminology (and quite a recent one) is the catch-all phrase 'black and ethnic minorities'. Note the 'and'. Are black people not an ethnic minority? Maybe the cringing liberals who use this term should invest in a WH Smith dictionary.

What they should at least realise is that all these terms are mere signifiers. In the UK, 'black' mainly means people either from, or with recent ancestors from, the Caribbean or Africa. Referring to a black person as being from a 'black or ethnic minority population' doesn't tell you any more about them or their history than just calling them 'black'. It certainly tells you nothing about them as individuals. But in normal speech we need shorthand terms like 'black' and 'Asian' and 'white'.

Perhaps if we just realised how meaningless they are we'd stop wasting our time finding tortuous ways of not offending people.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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