Do you like the title of this post? Both terms are often used, erroneously, to describe a part of the American population. Bill O’Reilly uses the term ‘people of color.’ Urbanite has become a code word for a particular culture – implying color and crime. Your nephew lives in very rural northwest Missouri. He was here visiting over the weekend. He used the term ‘colored people.’
I was disheartened. He is nine years old and is the single nicest person I know. He would not put salt on a slug, or step on a bug – I’m serious – a couple of months ago we found a slug and I said, “Hey, lets dump some salt on it.” Why,’ he said, “what would that do?” “Well, it kills the slug.” They boy was aghast. So I guess he lives in a culture that uses the word ‘colored’ in an innocent way to describe people of color.
Is Bill O’Reilly so innocent? Well – I think his terminology reflects his age and where he comes from. I doubt that he is consciously racist. Someone wrote a comment on one of my posts and he called me ‘dude.’ I could not figure out if he was insulting me or flattering me – we are of different cultures.
I was an older person when I went to college. I attended the University of Missouri at Kansas City. My degree is in Liberal Arts. While there I took a class called “African-American History from 1877.” The class was taught by a 53 year old ‘woman of color.’ UMKC is a predominantly white campus, but there were 12 Black students and four white students in that particular class. (Notice I capitalized Black, but not white.)
The class was one of the most enlightening of my curriculum. Every fifth grader knows about George Washington Carver and the peanut (The myth is that he invented peanut butter.) Carver is taught as a representative of what a good ‘colored’ person should be, i.e. dutifully working to make the lives of white people better. We studied Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, the formation of the NAACP in 1909, the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X – truly great men who changed our world forever. We also studied Jim Crow Laws and illegal public lynchings of Black men who never had a trial.
Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute – where Carver did his work with peanuts. W.E.B. Dubois was an intellectual who did not agree with Booker’s methods – they argued. Martin Luther King believed in peaceful civil disobedience – Malcolm X had the same goal – but disputed King’s methods. These were all brilliant men who had the same goal – but debated methods. To refer to them with one all-inclusive term is to demonstrate a real misunderstanding of history and of people.
The last day of the class the Professor gave us some startling insight. She made the issues of race very personal – probably as it should be. There was no ordered seating arrangement in the class and she noted our self imposed segregation – both black and white. There were seven black students sitting by the windows, five on the far wall, and four white students in the center row. The Professor said this always happens in this class – we students unwittingly segregated ourselves – none of us knew each other coming into the class. She speculated on the cause of the segregation.
Historically in this country Black people were treated as being intellectually less gifted than white people. Over many generations even the black people bought in to this fallacy. The professor speculated that the black students did not want to sit beside a white student out of fear of comparing test scores – the message of generations told them they could not compete. This profound underlying lack of confidence will take generations to weed out.
Then the Professor talked about herself, her grandfather, her father, and her son. The grandfather was happy to be called Negro – that was much better than ‘nigger.’ Her father was very satisfied with the term ‘colored’ – a definite improvement. She grew up in a generation that coined the term Black – and she was personally satisfied with that caricature. Her son insisted on being called African-American. I think these changes reflect the health of Americans struggling to redefine our racially integrated culture.
I know the people that influence the life of your nephew. They are some of the most decent and honorable people I have ever met. They have carved out football fields and baseball diamonds in the forests of NW Missouri and they raise their children to be good American Citizens. I attend the games and I sit in the bleachers listening to the folks talk about their families, about the ethics of sports, about honesty and integrity, about love and kindness, about the value of education – and I am happy that my grandson is influenced by honorable people. (I did have a talk with him about racial terminology.)
Perhaps I am just getting old, but that Black Professor had it right – everything should be measured in the context of time, of history, and of progress.