To Every Person, There Is a Name
By Barbara Sheklin Davis
I recently read an article which stated that in 25 years the United States will become a “majority-minority” country. This, of course, is absurd, because if a minority becomes a majority, then it is not minority-majority but just majority. The article also said that this demographic shift will occur because “people of color” will become the majority. But “people of color” is an equally absurd term. What does color mean exactly? Black, brown, red, yellow? Any shade that isn’t white or pink? What makes any naming of color acceptable when we’re trying to change the name of the Washington Redskins and eliminate “flesh-colored” crayons? Do we truly believe that Asian Americans want to be considered yellow? Color only makes sense in reference to the absence of color, or white, and is really an example of white insensitivity to others and a meaningless concept with regard to people.
Similarly, why do we insist on amalgamating disparate peoples together under one heading? Asian Americans include people who come from China, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam and many other countries. Why do we both homogenize them and separate them from the mainstream of “Americans” by hyphenating them? The same is true of the term “Latinx.” People who come from Spain or any of the countries in South or Central America don’t want to be lumped together under some made-up neologism. They have nationalities, just as anyone else does, and consider themselves Spanish or Colombian or Venezuelan or Peruvian or Puerto Rican or Mexican, etc. Even within these groups there are many divisions and subdivisions. No one term can encompass this diversity. And not all consider themselves “brown.”
The very term “American” upsets those who live north or south of the United States. After all, Canada is part of North America as is Mexico, so what right do people in the United States have to claim exclusivity over the term “American”? People in Central and South America are also Americans. Ironically there is no adjective to define citizens of the United States. “Unitedstatesian” is distinctly awkward, so it’s no wonder we tried to claim “American” for our exclusive use. But it’s a misnomer if it is used only to refer to U.S. nationals.
How we name ourselves is important. We live in an age in which identity and identification are constantly being challenged. People do not want limits set on their personhood. Some reject confinement to binary genders; others shun racial classification; others wish to invent new categories of definition altogether. And why shouldn’t people be able to define themselves in terms of the characteristics they deem essential and meaningful? No one word can adequately encompass all the aspects of a person’s being.
The difference between nouns and adjectives as descriptors is fraught. So much of how we understand words has to do with culture and context. Consider the difference between the noun “Jew” and the adjective “Jewish.” How did the term “Jew” become a pejorative? How can the word “Jew” be spat out and considered as offensive as using the N word to a Black person? How does an American child adopted from China feel when people call the coronavirus the “Chinese flu”? How does a Native America feel about “Indian summer”? Names matter. Nouns matter. Adjectives matter. But most importantly, people matter.
Of course we can go too far. The medieval word “niggardly” will be stricken from our vocabularies because of its unfortunate resemblance to a racial slur, but we can find other ways to describe the miserly. It may be overreacting to object to a promo that said “I’d be Ju-lying to you if I told you this month’s programs were live” because certainly the author of the words had no antisemitic intent. But we must still be on guard. We must still object when someone says, “I wasn’t trying to Jew you down” or “That’s white of you” or “He tried to gyp me” or “Don’t be an Indian giver.”
We must be sensitive to the feelings of others and allow them to use the names that feel most appropriate to them. One does not have to be confined to only one descriptor. I am not just one thing. I am not only a woman, only an American, only a writer, only a Jew. I am all of these things and many more. We can pile on a lot of adjectives, but even the adjectives don’t necessarily describe who we really are.
It is time for us to reject meaningless classifications and reject imposing them on other people. We must stop measuring everything from our own point of view. My vantage point is only one of billions such points and every one is equally valid from its own perspective. That is not to say that there cannot be agreed-upon truths or metrics; we need them to operate in a peaceful society. But we must recognize them for what they are: artificial constructs. A wise rabbi friend of mine teaches a course at a local Catholic college. He begins each term by displaying a map of the world he purchased in Australia. His students inevitably exclaim, “That map is upside down.” But, of course, it is not. The is no up or down on the globe that is our planet.
We need to remember this when we talk about majorities and minorities and colors and nationalities and genders and abilities and disabilities. We need to remember that our words must be carefully chosen and may need to reflect multiple realities. We must recognize that the words we use can be descriptive but also sometimes hurtful. And caring about others, and considering others’ points of view does not diminish us in any way. If anything, it makes us stronger in our understanding of ourselves and in our ability to do what we believe in.
Our tradition teaches that a person’s name, shem, is important and that a shem tov, a good name, is the highest of spiritual crowns. A model for all of this is Don Quijote, Cervantes’ fictional creation, who gave himself a new name and set out in his old age to right the wrongs of the world. Almost everyone deemed him demented, but he declared, “Yo sé quien soy,” “I know who I am.” And he was right. He knew himself and defined himself and allowed others the same privilege. We can do no better than to follow his example.
Barbara Sheklin Davis is Professor Emerita of Spanish at SUNY Onondaga Community College and the author of several books of local history and Judaic studies.