November 01, 2007

#01-032: PC - Part I: Political Correctness and Ethnicity

over thirty Asian people of different ethnicities in traditional costumes
People of many Asian ethnicities

Note: As more and more people from different races, nations, and language groups live side by side, at has become more and more important for us to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Here are some things to think about as we learn to be "politically correct."

When this was written, in 2007, it seems we lived in a different world. The murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movements, the attacks on Asians since the arrival of COVID-19, the separation of Spanish-speaking families at the southern border of the U.S.--the list goes on and on. More than ever, it's important that we be sensitive to the value of others, in our words and in our actions.

Get Ready: Do you have close friends from different groups--other "races," other countries, or speakers of other languages? Do the differences ever cause difficulties in communication?

We all know the term PC meaning "personal computer." But a few years ago, PC also came to stand for something new and controversial: Political Correctness.

It began on college campuses, where some scholars and students noticed that the traditional curriculum included mostly what some called "dead white men." The writers of the past were mostly Caucasian, and mostly male. Think of Socrates, Saint Paul, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Darwin, and Freud.

So students demanded more works by women, and by "people of color" (the PC--"politically correct"--phrase). This included blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other "minorities."

The movement was, of course, controversial. Conservatives said we were giving up our heritage; liberals said much of that heritage was irrelevant.

Today, the core curriculum still includes many traditional writers, but more contemporary authors are also read, including women and people of color.

The furor has died down, but there has been one lasting effect, something we call "inclusive language."

Its opposite is exclusive language, that is, language that excludes those who are not part of the majority. Racial slurs were never acceptable in polite or scholarly discourse. But the PC movement has caused people to be more sensitive to the meaning behind all of the words we use for various groups.

Take, for instance, the word oriental. It simply means "of the east." However, it somehow became considered demeaning. It was "ethnocentric," or centered on our own race. We are at the center. You are from east of us. Of course, we still say "Near East, Middle East, and Far East."

The real problem is that Oriental (especially when used as a noun) was regularly used in a time when Asians were looked down on. In a famous book called Orientalism, Edward Said wrote that most Western people were not dealing with the East as it was, but as they imagined it to be. It was romantic, exotic, mysterious--not entirely real.

Many scholars have disagreed with Said's analysis. Nevertheless, today, in proper discussions, Asian is far preferred over Oriental as a noun. "He is an Asian," not, "He is an Oriental." Even better than lumping all Asians together, though, is to be specific: "He is Korean."

In Lesson #01-033 we'll look at changes in language regarding gender.


Read more:

Practice: Find the better way to express the underlined word(s).

  1. He might be Chinese. Anyway, he's some kind of Oriental.
  2. You're taking your present back? Don't be an Indian giver!
  3. That shopkeeper gypped me!
  4. When the employees were laid off, they felt like they had been sold down the river.
  5. When I was selling that guy my car, he tried to Jew me down.

  1. renege on your generosity
  2. negotiate a much lower price
  3. from somewhere in Asia.
  4. cheated
  5. betrayed

Explanation of the Answers: After you check your answers in the first comment below, read on for more information on these words.

  1. The use of oriental was discussed in the lesson above.
  2. Indian giver was based on the mistaken stereotype that Native Americans ("Indians") would give a gift and then take it back. There are several possible explanations of this. One is that European settlers misunderstood the concept of exchanging gifts, and simply accepted presents without offering anything in return. This caused the locals to ask for their gifts back.
  3. Gypped derives from the word gypsy, a people who call themselves Romani (or Rom or Roma, and who may consider gypsy insulting). A widely-held stereotype claims that traveling groups of Romani would cheat the locals whose lands they passed through.
  4. Selling down the river refers to a time when enslaved African Americans, particularly in the northern part of the U.S., might be "sold" to new "owners" in the South, where conditions were generally harsher; the "river" is the Mississippi.
  5. To Jew someone down is based in the stereotype that Jewish people were particularly greedy, and would negotiate fiercely to save money.
Remember, all of the expressions in the numbered sentences are offensive, and should not be used.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 1, 2007

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