Wednesday, November 14, 2012

on changing names to avoid stigma

This is a response to

When I was younger, I moved to a new city to take a job.  When I got there, I was told to avoid a particular apartment complex on the grounds that the units were substandard.  I ended up living in that complex, because the owner changed the name, so I did not recognize it.

I lived there for about a year and a half.  During that time, they changed their name again.  

I am persuaded that they changed the names, so that newcomers who had not been warned would not recognize that this was the complex they had been told to avoid.  

Ever since then I have been very suspicious whenever people change the names of a person, place or thing to avoid stigma.  The stigma does not come from the name.  The name acquires stigma, because of our feelings toward the thing described.  

The word "retarded" used to be regarded as kind, but acquired stigma.  Now people don't like the word and use "developmentally disabled," or some such thing instead.

I have particularly noticed this issue in reference to people of African descent in the US.  

In a song from the 19th century Stephen Foster referred to these people as "darkies."  Foster was later condemned as racist, though I don't think he really intended harm to the people so described.  His songs actually expressed affection for them.  He merely expressed attitudes of his era, not truly understanding that they were hurtful.  Nevertheless, the language he used was rejected as offensive, though, again, I do not think it was intended to be.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the word "colored" was considered polite in referring to these people.  At that era, the famous organization called NAACP, used the word "colored" in describing its own people.  That was considered good.  The word "black" was considered insulting.

Later on, the word "colored" became considered insulting, and the word "Negro" was adopted.  The United Negro College Fund used this word.  This word is the Spanish word for "black."  Despite the fact that "Negro" was at one time considered acceptable, the dread "n" word, which I dare not even type here, which was derived from "Negro," is considered obscene.

Nevertheless, people of African descent consider it acceptable to call each other by the dread "n" word, while becoming highly offended if a "white" person uses that word.  Moreover, the perfectly innocent word "niggardly," which means "stingy" sounds sufficiently similar to the "n" word that no one can use the perfectly innocent word without becoming a target of public harassment, which I find appalling.

The word, "Negro," was considered polite when I was a child, but then it became considered impolite by the time I was a teen -- after Martin Luther King, Jr., who used that word, was assassinated.

The next fashionable word was "black."  When my mom was in college, that was definitely a "faux pas" to say "black," but that attitude changed.

After "black" came "African American," which was considered more similar to "Italian American" or "Japanese American."  

The problem with "African American," was that many people are of mixed race and, moreover, it was cumbersome.

Then the term "people of color," was introduced.  This is quite similar to "colored," which was used in the first half of the twentieth century, so we have come almost full circle.

Nevertheless, I find "people of color" insulting, because it implies that people, like me, of European descent, lack color, which is not a nice thing to say.  I have color.  I am not "white."  I am beige and pink.  Moreover, I think I have a colorful personality.

I am also a member of the Religious Society of Friends.  We have a subgroup that used to be called "FLGC" (Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns).  After a while, some people got offended by this term, so they changed it to "FLGBTQC" (Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer Concerns).  I found that odd, because the word "queer" used to be regarded as insulting, but now, apparently, some people like to be called that.

I really wish we would stop renaming things on the grounds of stigma.  The stigma does not come from the name.  The stigma comes from the thing named.  Changing the name does not remove the stigma.

This is similar to the situation in my house, where the lead paint soaks through into the latex paint.  They developed an encapsulant  paint to paint over lead paint, to try to avoid this problem, but I wonder how long the encapsulant paint really solves the problem.  The poison seeps into the new words , just as the lead seeps into the latex paint.

The problem is with the stigma itself, not the name.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you. You put it very well with those examples.