Let’s Stop Calling Ourselves Minorities

A version of this post was originally published in 2014 in The Root.com

minorities3It’s hard to believe, but it has already been four years (July 2012) when babies born of parents of color in the U.S. overtook births of white babies. What this means, according to demographers, is that by the year 2040, or thereabouts, there will be no majority race in the U.S. Blacks now make up about 13 percent of the population, while those hailing from the Spanish-speaking former New World colonies make up approximately 17 percent, and growing. Asians, both south and east, Middle-easterners and the cohort of mixed or “other” are also on the rise.

So why do we insist on using the word “minority” to speak of people of color, as a synonym for nonwhite? Growing up in the 70s and 80s, “minority” became an easy shorthand; an all-inclusive way to designate those who are not Caucasian. Since historically, this country has been overwhelmingly white (as much as 70 percent and more) it made its own kind of sense, and it was also easier than saying the mouthful “people of color,” or more daunting, calling each racial/ethnic group by name.

For some time now, I have sworn off using the term at all, and have tried to persuade others that the term is one whose time has passed. With the news of the nonwhite babies becoming a majority of births three years ago, I noticed such awkward constructions in the media as “majority minority.” Talk about oxymorons!

I believe that words have power to influence our thoughts and our thoughts influence our actions. If we cling to outdated and identity-sapping self-descripters, we forever regard ourselves as powerless.

So let’s take a look at how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines minority: It reads:

: a number or amount that is less than half of a total;

: the group that is the smaller part of a larger group;

: a group of people who are different from the larger group in a country, area, etc., in some way (such as race or religion)

That last definition is the one we are dealing with here; but think of the other definitions: minority is something that is less than half of a total. It is the smaller part of a group.

As long as we use the term as a synonym for the myriad people of color, we are, I believe consigning those people to lesser status and a smaller role, in short to powerlessness.

When you hear the word majority, on the other hand, it denotes power. The majority vote wins in elections. The majority opinion is sometimes able to silence the less popular. Speaking of the majority race makes it seem like a behemoth; something as immovable and inevitable as a mountain range.

But racial power is not inevitable; it is the result of various historical forces. What will happen when our country becomes a nation of fractured ethnic and racial groups, with no one group in the majority? Doesn’t it make sense to begin to speak of racial groups using their proper name, i.e., black, white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Latino and Latina?

Recently, I read in the New York Times that Middle-Eastern immigrants would like a designated box on the census form. Currently, they must check white or other, and many of them do not feel white, nor are they treated as if they were. You have to wonder how the white bloc of citizens is over-counted due to quirks of the census like this. Same with Hispanics. They are also able to check a box declaring their race, black, white, or a combination. However, the same article noted that Hispanics, when given the option of choosing a race, overwhelmingly check white, despite the fact that few Hispanics from the New World have a typically Caucasian phenotype. Again, the white “majority” bloc is falsely expanded.

I was watching a movie in the Fast and Furious franchise the other day, noting how diverse the cast is. There are several blacks. A few whites, both men and women. An Asian man. Several Hispanics. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Vin Diesel face fight during one scene. My first thought, looking at the two men, is that I have seen the future, and the future will look a lot like them. More and more Americans are balking at the strictures of claiming one race at all: Diesel is reportedly black and white; Johnson is Polynesian and black. I am seeing more young people who belong to the nebulous “mixed-race group,” who see no reason to deny any part of their heritage.

In light of such trends, will there come a day when the census drops racial labeling altogether?

Maybe. But in the meantime, can a majority of us agree to stop using the belittling and power-robbing synonym “minority” for that blossoming, growing, expanding group of multi-racial and varied-race Americans?

 

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The Story in My DNA

Like many African Americans, I grew up not knowing where I came from. There was no “old country” for us. Obviously, I knew that most slaves were brought from Central and West Africa. I heard family stories about being part Native American – that the Seminole Indians had helped slaves escape from their masters by sheltering them within their tribe. That my grandfather’s mother was half Cherokee, part Scotch-Irish, as well as African. Her long black hair and high cheekbones in the one photo I saw of her bore this out.

For a while, these stories were enough. I believed that I would only really find out, if ever, in the afterlife.

When I was 29, I moved from New York City to Argyle, N.Y., a small upstate farming town that had been settled by Scots. Since Fergusons were on the original patent, I was often asked, while interviewing people by phone as a local reporter, if I was one of the Argyle Fergusons, and I would laugh, and say no, and explain that I was African American, not Scottish.

Cameroon girl(Cameroonian girl, stock photo)

A few years ago, at a National Association for Black Journalists conference, the company African Ancestry was doing free DNA analyses for some of the attendees as a promotion. I sat transfixed as the African ancestry of various people was teased out; and listened with amazement at how the person displayed some similar traits as their ancestral land … for example, a gift with textiles.

After that, I became more curious about my ancestry. As the one of the few black people in Argyle, I always wondered why I felt so at home there. Walking into the school auditorium to cover the town’s high school graduation, and seeing all of the McKernons, Liddles, Campbells, McWhorters, felt familiar and natural.

I took a selfie one day lying on my couch and spent minutes studying it intently. The sun was in my eyes, so one eye came out a light brownish gray, the other a dark brown. My skin was caramel brown with yellow undertones. My nose was African. My lips were full. My cheekbones high. I looked at the selfie intently. Who was I? What ancestors contributed to my unique look?

I finally decided to do it … I sent in a sample of my saliva to Ancestry.com.

The directions were easy. Spit up to a certain designated level. Snap the cap with preservative on the test tube. Shake. Seal. Deliver in the self-addressed envelope. Create a portal on the Ancestry web site. Wait.

Finally, they were there. The pie chart that held the mystery of my ancestry.

I had a cousin who had taken the test before me. Her results had come back that she was only 1 percent Native American. Skip Gates, of Harvard University and of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, had written that for most African Americans, Native American ancestry was almost entirely absent. There hadn’t been many opportunities for slaves to mingle with Native Americans outside of a few states like Oklahoma, along the Trail of Tears. His research had shown that most of those light brown people with high cheekbones and long black hair were an admixture of African and European.

I was not surprised that my results bore this out. 71 percent African (including 2 percent North African); 28 percent European and a mere one percent Native American.

The ancestry was so straightforward, it was almost a letdown. African and European. We knew all about the forced sex on Southern plantations; so that was no surprise.

But I still was happy to know more about my ancestors than I ever had. The majority of my DNA was from Cameroon. Cameroon was named by Portuguese, who found that a major waterway teemed with shrimp; therefore they called it Rio dos Camarões or Shrimp River. Facing the Atlantic, it was one of the first places Africans were enslaved. I wondered if my love of the ocean and for seafood was encoded in my DNA. I now know that my family has been in this country from slavery’s early days in the 1600s or early 1700s, since we are descended from some of the first peoples brought from the African continent. Therefore, despite the persistent and resurgent racism in the U.S., I have always, proudly and firmly, felt very American.

Twenty-two percent was Great Britain, which in Ancestry.com’s breakdown, meant England, Scotland and Wales. Because of the family lore about Scottish ancestry, I assume that ancestry was Scottish. Could that explain why I had always felt at home in a land settled by Scots?

The Argyle Scots had been brought to upstate New York to become a buffer between the French and Indians and English settlers. A Capt. Laughlin Campbell was the man who sailed his compatriots to New York. First, though, he brought the South Carolina Fergusons over. My family is rooted in South Carolina. So although I wasn’t descended from the Argyle Fergusons, I was undoubtedly related to them by way of Capt. McLaughlin Campbell.

Next was Ghana (15 percent) Senegal (10 percent) and Benin, 9 percent. I had a high-school friend whose mother had always said I looked Ghanaian and my younger sister’s been told she resembles the nomadic Fulani, who originated in North Africa and peopled many West African nations. So it came as confirmation to discover our North African ancestry. I remember two Senegalese French teachers in high school, whom many of our classmates swooned over. I always used to say that Senegalese men were the best looking men in Africa. Perhaps it’s because something in my DNA recognized something of my ancestors in their faces?

Finally, Benin, the land where the beautiful bronze heads originated. These were master craftsman, artists, among the best on the African continent. My mother, aunt and grandfather were all skilled artists. As well as an aunt on my father’s side. Coincidence?

Although nothing materially changes when you know your ancestry, somehow it ameliorates part of the mystery of who you are and where you came from. Just because of a little bit of spit in a test tube, I now know at least part of the story of my forebears – as told by my DNA.

This story originally appeared in the Huffington Post: Black Voices. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hope-ferguson/the-story-in-my-dna_b_10008126.html

What Bitstrips Taught Me About Colorism

beyonceSeveral months ago, like everyone else, I started seeing cartoon avatars from Bitstrips show up in my Facebook news feed. Like countless other Facebook users, I had fun piecing together my avatar from a number of choices available and posting a few cartoons.

It was all good passing fun, except for one thing. When I looked at some of my friends’ and family’s Bitstrips, I noticed a disturbing trend. Many people of color created avatars with much lighter skin than they actually have.

Light-skinned blacks became indistinguishable from white. Brown-skinned people were suddenly light tan; and dark-skinned people inevitably made themselves light brown, and in one case even white!

It got me to thinking about how this issue of colorism plagues us still. In the last few years, the topic has been revived by such documentaries as Dark Girls, and by celebrities like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, who have created controversy by seemingly morphing into white women before our eyes.

Allure magazine recently ran an article on the popularity and dangers of the practice of skin bleaching, and my sister told me that West Africans even have a term for it: Fanta face and Coca-Cola body. (Fanta is an orange-colored soda, and the effect of whitening often leaves brown skin with an orange cast.)

As Yasmin Alibhai-brown wrote in a very cogent piece in the Daily Mail, “Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad ‘truth’ that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior,” and dated the desire for light skin in India to before the time of the Raj.

For black Americans, it’s an old story. Dark-skinned female slaves brought from Africa were used as sex toys by white slave owners and overseers. A new caste arose: the mulatto. Because these mixed-blood people had hair, skin and features closer to that of the master, many, both white and black, viewed their looks as more desirable. Black sororities and social clubs instituted “paper bag” tests: i.e., you had to be no darker than a brown paper bag to gain entrance. Some mixed people passed for white by day in order to achieve the economic benefits of whiteness, while reverting to their own race when at home. “One Drop,” the mesmerizing story of New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, who in his later years passed for white, had parents who did just that.

I find it perplexing that in almost every culture, light is considered desirable, and black despicable. White is pure; black is evil. Why does this mindset stretch across the globe in cultures that until recently had no significant contact with one another? After pondering the issue, I decided that likely it is a vestige of agricultural societies, where the well-to-do were able to avoid toiling in fields and darkening their skin, whereas the peasants were dark or swarthy from the sun. Therefore, light skin became equated with wealth, ease and class, and dark skin with poverty and peasantry.

I grew up in a family that disdained colorism. Or so I deduce, because I was completely unaware of it until my teens, when my family returned to the U.S. after my father’s diplomatic posting in East Africa. I was fascinated and surprised by the talk of “good” hair, light skin, and that the hip popular clique were mainly light-skinned and wavy-haired. My fair skinned, wavy-haired boyfriend with a monster curly Afro, would dissect his family’s lineage with excruciating detail. I later attended Howard University with a green-eyed young man who came from a family infamous for having intermarried with relatives to avoid the “curse” of dark skin.

That is why the Bitstrips avatars, Beyoncé, et al, and the extreme prevalence of nose jobs on beautiful black female actresses, has been such a disappointment to me.

I admit that once upon a time, many, many, years ago, I would probably have gone under the knife to refine my round, negroid nose if I had the money. But now that I am older, I view my nose as a badge of honor. Even if I had the time, money and vanity, I would no more alter what God gave me than to change my first name.

I feel that it’s almost a rebellious act to be proud of my nose. That’s a sad commentary during a time when we have seen our first Black commander-in-chief, and when a black man has just joined the ranks of chairmen at Microsoft.

I say, it’s time to bring back James Brown’s anthem: “Say it loud; I’m black and I’m proud.” As we witness the dawn of the brown, black and yellow century, let’s throw off the old bondage that taught us that if you’re white, you’re all right. Let’s embrace our African, Asian, Arab, Latina beauty … if not for ourselves, then at least for our children and our children’s children.

There’s speculation that women in Hollywood feel they must alter their looks in order to “cross over” and to become mainstream, and therefore rich and powerful. To paraphrase scripture: But what does it profit a person to gain the whole world, if he or she loses his or her soul?