Author Topic: Need politically correct advice: colored or black for a person of color?  (Read 2175 times)  

Offline Kathryn Meyer Griffith

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Hi all
I'm writing my 30th novel (the 7th of my Spookie Town murder mystery series) and it is dealing with a 70 year old murder mystery of a young black girl in 1950...WHAT SHOULD I call her  in 1950? is it black or colored? African American girl sounds too formal. What would I call her now, black or colored? I don't want to offend anyone, so I thought I'd ask. (I wrote a book 27 years ago and one of my characters I referred to an Indian...and I got called on the carpet for that term, so I am being careful with this one.)

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    Offline Gareth K Pengelly

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    Black, for sure, if it's the narrator (you) describing her. Colored is a very racist term these days, the only people I hear use it in the UK at least are much older people who just don't know any better. HOWEVER it would make sense to use it if it were a racist, or otherwise 1950's mentality character speaking about a black person. People did use it back then. But make sure it's the characters using the term, not you.

    Also, why did you get told off for using Indian to describe someone? If they were from India, then what else would you call them? Asian? If anything, that's an even stupider term. Asian can mean anything from anywhere in Asia. Asia's a bloody big place. Someone who's from China is Asian. Chinese and Indian aren't the same, no matter what the PC brigade would like to tell you.

    That'd be like someone being from France, speaking only French, eating beaucoup des baguettes, and only being allowed to call them 'European' rather than what they are, namely French.

    Online NikOK

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    This is a tough topic, and I think the best that I can do is give you an example of how race/ethnicity turned me off from a book I was reading a while back.  Don't know if it helps your exact situation, but for me it's more about the context and less about the words that are used, and this example is something that made me dead stop reading something.

    So, there was this book that was written by a local guy where I live, and he's an old white guy, but I don't know him too well, so I don't know what his sensibilities really are.  Anyways, in his book there was one African American character, and the author specifically wrote all of that character's dialog as if it was kind of hood, for lack of a better term.  For me, that was a deal breaker.  It was like he just had it in his mind that that's how this character should talk, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.  As a reader, I don't care what words you use, what I care about is the intention.  If you have really complex and dynamic characters, then they can get away with a lot.  If your character's defining characteristics are a stereotype based on skin color, then I'm out.  Not only is it offensive, but I also don't find it realistic at all.  I've never met anyone in real life who is a stereotype.

    Offline Jeff Hughes

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    The answer would depend entirely on where and whom your character(s) are.  Unfortunately, attitudes in 1950 were quite racist by today's standards... but still varied enormously from region to region and community to community and person to person.

    The fine line you (royal 'you'... all writers) tremble upon is being faithful to your characters (and the era in which you have placed them) on the one hand, and yet not offending today's audience on the other.  We live today in such a hyper sensitive time that I'm not sure it's possible to cleave that line honestly and accurately.  If Harper Lee were to publish To Kill a Mockingbird today, I expect she'd be skewered.

    Jeff Hughes

    Online Jena H

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    I'm no expert, and yes, it's a crazy mine-field of a subject.  But you're correct in wanting to know what term to use for a book set in 1950.  I faced a similar problem for one of my time-travel books, set in 1943.  I tried to work around it in the book as best I could.  As it turned out, my characters noticed signs that said "Colored Only," and the like.  And a few of the 1943 people (mere passersby, nobody important) referred to one of my main characters as a Negro.
    Jena

    Online ShaneCarrow

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    Also, why did you get told off for using Indian to describe someone? If they were from India, then what else would you call them? Asian? If anything, that's an even stupider term. Asian can mean anything from anywhere in Asia. Asia's a bloody big place. Someone who's from China is Asian. Chinese and Indian aren't the same, no matter what the PC brigade would like to tell you.

    Native American.

    Shane Carrow

    Offline Cecelia

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    Depends on country and point of view.

    If you are writing from the character's point of view their ethnicity would be shown in how they think about themselves - not from a label. African American is only correct for persons born in America. British blacks may call themselves "Black", but culturally are as British as anybody else, from the ones I have met.

    In Australia, Aboriginals are considered "Indigenous" regardless of skin tone, and immigrants from all other backgrounds are not.  Australia is multi-cultural and immigrants take a certain pride in retaining their heritage, although this also leads to some conflict.

    Offline Doglover

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    On the kdp forum I was once having a disagreement with a poster from India and I referred to indie authors. As we all know, this means independent, but this idiot thought I was referring to his race and complained to Amazon.

    If the book is set in 1950s America, the character would be coloured, wouldn't he/she? It doesn't matter what words we use today. If I read a scene set in 1950s America and some joker says: 'native American' that book is going straight in the bin. I write historical novels and the things you really must get right are common words of the time. I read a review of a so-called historical novel once which talked about having sex and getting closure; needless to say it was a bad review.

    In England, the character would be called black in 1950, but that's another story.


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    Offline MattGodbey

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    If you're referring to her in the 1950's, you would definitely say colored, at least in the American South. I grew up in Mississippi and my grandparents referred to black/African Americans as "colored". Ironic, isn't it that the vogue nom du jour is "people of color"? Or "Colored?" Full circle. I even remember my grandmother saying in 1967 that "they" wanted to be called "black" now. So there you go.

    Offline MattGodbey

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    If the book is set in 1950s America, the character would be coloured, wouldn't he/she? It doesn't matter what words we use today. If I read a scene set in 1950s America and some joker says: 'native American' that book is going straight in the bin. I write historical novels and the things you really must get right are common words of the time. I read a review of a so-called historical novel once which talked about having sex and getting closure; needless to say it was a bad review.


    So true

    Offline Darryl Hughes

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    Hi all
    I'm writing my 30th novel (the 7th of my Spookie Town murder mystery series) and it is dealing with a 70 year old murder mystery of a young black girl in 1950...WHAT SHOULD I call her  in 1950? is it black or colored? African American girl sounds too formal. What would I call her now, black or colored? I don't want to offend anyone, so I thought I'd ask. (I wrote a book 27 years ago and one of my characters I referred to an Indian...and I got called on the carpet for that term, so I am being careful with this one.)

    Hi Kathryn. As a black person I'm sure it's hard for white people to know all the different terms that we've been referred to over the years or even prefer to be referred to even today. For example, I referred to myself just now as a "black person". That's because I don't like the term african american. It's a personal choice. But many black people prefer not to be called african american like other black people do to the utter confusion of others I'm sure.

    As to your question. In the 50's black people were referred to as "colored". In the early to mid 60's you'd refer to a black person as "negro" because the term was seen as more political and less racist, from the late 60's to the late 70's as "black" because it was seen as more racially affirming (as in "say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud"), and from the 80's to today as either "black" or "african american" (again depending on the preference of the individual) with "african american" being seen as the more politically correct term. As mentioned, I prefer to be called "black" as opposed to "african american".

    I hope that helps.

    Dee

     

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    Offline Cecelia

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    Probably off the topic for your current novel, but some Indian friends tell me they are not sure they want their country to be continued to be called "India" because that is the name the British gave it. There is another name in their own language, and a reversion is being considered.

    A similar thing can apply to "Native American". I did some research once and found that while politically correct, it is not liked. (America is what the settlers called the country.) Some people would prefer to go back to the name they called themselves, even if it sounds funny to us.

    @NikOK - are you sure the writer meant disrespect trying to use "Hood" language? I've been led to understand, that some people are very proud of their unique identity? In fact, in my TESOL studies, I read scholarly articles that advocated having "Black English" recognised as a dialect -- not just assumed to be poor grammar.

    Offline WegR

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    Personally I would tend to use the term used at the time the book is set in, although I'd also consider how the reader may feel when reading that term (which is what you're doing anyway), and whether there is an elegant way around the problem (I like Jena H's solution of the character reading signs - that distances the character from the term while firmly showing the language of the time).

    Nevertheless, whatever term you decide to use, somebody will disagree. As an example, a character in one of my books is a rather unpleasant man, and I got dinged in a review for him having objectifying thoughts about a female character. The reviewer suggested that I was reflecting my own attitudes. You just have to shrug and move on, listen to what people are saying and try to write the right thing in the right way - whatever that may be for you.


    Offline Paranormal Kitty

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    I would encourage you to do more research and talk to some black people who lived at that time (not in person at this time but from Facetime, email, phone call, etc.). Nearly always when an author was called out for writing something offensive it was due to lack of knowledge and understanding. Asking people for a list of "politically correct" terms is not a replacement for actual understanding.

    Offline VisitasKeat

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    We say milk is white in color but in reality no human's skin color is that white. So, "white people" is only politically correct even though there is no facticity behind it. Similarly, there exists no human being as black as the night. Hence "black people" is also politically correct even though there isn't any facticity behind it. The entire game of chess is black vs white. It's a racist game.

    Calling a character a person of color means dodging the political and social perspectives of those years when slavery was still in vogue. They were sold in markets like potatoes and onions. Their bodily assets were advertised in creative ways, though that was utterly inhuman and disgusting.

    Calling someone as a person of color appears formal and is compromise on the part of the author for the sake of not offending hypersensitive readers. That also means "white people" are colorless! Hahaha! Such a diplomatic narrative won't bring out the flavours of realism. Mutual admiration society sucks! You can see that many times in movies. It's almost a trope thing in Hollywood. Those old timers know! Narration must be kicka** and blunt, the way it used to be during 1950s.

    Also, "negro" literally means black in Spanish and refers to Western African people living along the Niger river. As such it wasn't offensive then, but now? #blacklivesmatter is a popular hashtag, so using "black people"  isn't offensive today, just as using "Negro" wasn't during the 1950s. Hence, using "negro" is appropriate for your novel.

    Offline Kathy Dee

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    I will have to face this problem soon, just a bit further down the line for a series I am writing. The way I am going to tackle it is by using none of those terms to describe black characters. I will try to describe my black characters using the same methods as I would describe white characters.

    When I describe white characters, I don't feel the need to tell the reader that the character is white; it becomes evident from the various attributes that I do describe. So that's what I will try to do. The reader will come to under stand that some of my characters are black without me explicitly telling them. That, I think, is something black people would understand and respect.
    « Last Edit: July 13, 2020, 05:40:26 am by Kathy Dee »

    Offline MorrowWriter

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    When I describe white characters, I don't feel the need to tell the reader that the character is white; it becomes evident from the various attributes that I do describe.

    Great point.

    In my latest story, told from the perspective of an AI, I have used the term African-American. I feel like it works in this context because the character is synthetic, and the term feels slightly synthetic.

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    Offline Gareth K Pengelly

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    Probably off the topic for your current novel, but some Indian friends tell me they are not sure they want their country to be continued to be called "India" because that is the name the British gave it. There is another name in their own language, and a reversion is being considered.

    Never heard about this, and my local city here in the UK has a HUGE Indian population. It's a city of a quarter of a million, which is only 45% English, the rest is Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, with more temples and mosques than churches, haha. Perhaps the sentiment is different depending on where the Indian person lives, and how many generations removed they are from India? Most Indians here in the UK are like fourth/fifth generation English now. The parents and grandparents sometimes speak only Hindi or Gurjurati, with a tiny bit of English, but most younger generations speak English with their family language as a second one.

    I know that India is called Bharat in their tongue, as many of my friends spoke Hindi growing up. I just always assumed that was what they called it, and India was what we called it, same as Spain is the English version of Espaa in Spanish. Didn't realise it was a point of contention amongst some Indians.

    Again though, getting back to the original point, I don't think Indians mind being called Indian, any more than French mind being called French or Spanish, Spanish.

    If we start having to call everyone by their name in their own tongue, calling a French person Francais or a Spanish Espagnol, or an Indian bhaarateey (which still wouldn't work - what if they speak Gurjurati not Hindi?) then we lose the point of having those words in English full-stop.

    Offline notjohn

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    > I don't want to offend anyone

    The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that if you have characters of different ethnicities/nationalities, you WILL offend someone!

    Everyone who has used the term "black" in this thread has lower-cased it. But that is now politically incorrect! Even the Wall Street Journal, famously conservative, now upper-cases Black. The only color adjective that is lower-cased is "white" -- and you may be sure that the identity police will soon rule that out, because lower-casing it suggests that it is the norm. I give it less than six months.

    Do what Michael Connolley does: omit any reference to color. Let the movie adapter choose the color of the character who will play him/her/it. And most certainly don't use dialect unless it's universally understood.

    It's simply not true that you're safe if you're true to your characters' use of language. Go ask a middle school or high school teacher if he/she/it still assigns Huckleberry Finn to his/her/its students! (Well, perhaps there's an expurgated version that alters Huck's response to the lady who asks if anyone was injured in the explosion of a steamboat boiler.)

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    Offline Gareth K Pengelly

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    > I don't want to offend anyone

    The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that if you have characters of different ethnicities/nationalities, you WILL offend someone!

    This is true. Unfortunately our work is out there in the public domain, and there are people out in the world who make it their life's mission to find things to be offended by.

    Every time you release a book, you're painting a target on your forehead.

    Still... makes every new release an adventure, eh?

    Offline Rick Gualtieri

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    I write historical novels and the things you really must get right are common words of the time. I read a review of a so-called historical novel once which talked about having sex and getting closure; needless to say it was a bad review.

    I tend to agree. Unless I'm reading a comedy or time travel story, seeing modern day slang and/or sensibilities in an older setting completely pulls me out of it. Offense is subjective, but getting something completely wrong for the sake of current day correctness seems to me a good way to compromise your story.


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    Offline Gareth K Pengelly

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    I tend to agree. Unless I'm reading a comedy or time travel story, seeing modern day slang and/or sensibilities in an older setting completely pulls me out of it. Offense is subjective, but getting something completely wrong for the sake of current day correctness seems to me a good way to compromise your story.


    Exactly. With comedy it works - look at a Knight's Tale. Perfect example of the juxtaposition of historical and modern.

    But if I were reading something serious, it'd drag me right out of the story.

    Online NikOK

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    Probably off the topic for your current novel, but some Indian friends tell me they are not sure they want their country to be continued to be called "India" because that is the name the British gave it. There is another name in their own language, and a reversion is being considered.

    A similar thing can apply to "Native American". I did some research once and found that while politically correct, it is not liked. (America is what the settlers called the country.) Some people would prefer to go back to the name they called themselves, even if it sounds funny to us.

    @NikOK - are you sure the writer meant disrespect trying to use "Hood" language? I've been led to understand, that some people are very proud of their unique identity? In fact, in my TESOL studies, I read scholarly articles that advocated having "Black English" recognised as a dialect -- not just assumed to be poor grammar.

    I guess that could be true.  And, doing a dialect can be done well, but I'm just saying that there are times when it can be done really bad.  Maybe my complaint is more of a character writing complaint and less of a race thing.  Like, I was reading that book and feeling like a stereotype of the character's skin color was his main character traits, and I didn't like that.

    And, I grew up near a Native American reservation and went to school with a lot of people from there.  Generally people would say the name of the tribe they were from.  So, rather than "I'm Native American" it would be "I'm Iroquois."  But people in different places probably prefer different things.  It may be impossible to please everybody.


    Offline Decon

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    > I don't want to offend anyone

    The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that if you have characters of different ethnicities/nationalities, you WILL offend someone!

    Everyone who has used the term "black" in this thread has lower-cased it. But that is now politically incorrect! Even the Wall Street Journal, famously conservative, now upper-cases Black. The only color adjective that is lower-cased is "white" -- and you may be sure that the identity police will soon rule that out, because lower-casing it suggests that it is the norm. I give it less than six months.



    This deserves a thread on its own. Funnily enough I was writing a chapter today and I had The blacks, Latino, and Hispanic......

    I kept looking at it and thinking, why have I capitalised those two and not the other. It didn't seem right so I changed it The African Americans, Latino, and Hispanic.....

    Good point that we don't capitalize white in relation to race,. {Caucasian}

    The terms we use are confusing between the US and the UK to describe the appearance of someone. Call someone Asian in the UK, and everyone would think, Pakistan/Indian continent. In the US I'm guessing most would  imagine the appearance of Chinese, or Korean if described as Asian. Whereas in the UK someone of that appearance it would be Oriental.

    UK police have the best distinction as radio codes, but other than in dialogue it would be lost with US readers and UK readers without an addendum.

    Wikipedia
    IC is police-speak for identifying the ethnicity of a person: identity codes include IC1 (White), IC3 (Black), IC4 (West Asian), IC5 (East Asian).

    I can understand someone of a certain tribe describing themselves that way as say, I'm Ute. Or whatever, but if if you didn't know what their tribe was called, then their appearance would be Native American.

    I lived in Brazil for ten years and there they have Porto Negro = Port Black,  which I thought was offensive, but no one there minded of African decent to slaves. But there it is pronounced as written and not as it is used in the US as if it had and extra 'e' , In fact reading the newspapers, negro cropped up everywhere either referring simply to the color black, or someone of African descent as black, which took some getting used to.

    I didn't know using colored/coloured was offensive until Word spell check kept flagging it if say I wrote colored/coloured crayons, so I had to do an Internet search to find out why as I'm of the older generation and coloured was was commonplace to describe race.

    Anyway, to answer your question "colored" to describe race is considered racist this day and age, but in a historical setting it would not have been
    « Last Edit: July 15, 2020, 04:17:47 am by Decon »


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    Offline Gessert Books

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    In the US I'm guessing most would  imagine the appearance of Chinese, or Korean. Whereas in the UK someone of that appearance it would be Oriental.

    Funnily enough, in the States oriental is not the preferred nomenclature, to turn a phrase.
    « Last Edit: July 13, 2020, 06:33:01 pm by Gessert Books »

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