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At Least We Can All Agree On What NOT To Say

, , , , , , | Working | August 3, 2020

Forty years ago, I worked for a small microfilm publishing company as a newspaper indexer. While the company filmed the paper, the indexers read the articles, choosing subject headings for the article and writing a short sentence describing the content.

I had recently been promoted to assistant editorial which basically meant that, yes, I got a raise, but it also meant I did a lot of leg work when the big bosses decided it was time to fix things that weren’t actually broken.

The bosses, upon looking at the index, felt that African-Americans reading the index would be offended if the words “race” and “racism” were in an alphabetical list with the words “race track” because it was disrespectful to black people. From then on, anything about racing, the sport, was under the name of the item being raced — cars, horses, greyhounds, jumping frogs, etc. We could not even put in a “see” reference from racing to the new terms because that would be so hurtful.

The discussion of race then put them in mind that using the phrase “African-American” didn’t sound right, either. It was going to sound offensive and they didn’t like it.

So, it became my job, the vice president decided, to call every black cultural group on every college campus in the county until I got some kind of consensus. 

In what was one of the strangest little projects, I called the three closest and largest colleges. The first two “African-American Cultural Centers” were, oddly, run by white people. They told me this up front. Number One said she had no clue as she wasn’t African-American and had no one to ask, but she felt sure that the term “Afro-American” was preferred over “Black” or “African-American” because it sounded “hip.”

Guy Two was some kind of didactic intellectual who went off on a long diatribe about how “Afro-American” and “African-American” were somehow insulting — he did not explain why — and it was much better to refer to them as “Black” which was descriptive and therefore preferable.  

Then, I hit Number Three. The gentleman who answered had a deep James Earl Jones voice and what seemed a sour and disinterested manner. I explained my dilemma and I finished with, “And so, I am embarrassed to ask this, but my boss insists I ask exactly this: do African Americans prefer to be called ‘African-American,’ ‘Afro-American,’ or ‘Black’?”

There was a long pause and then he said, “I prefer ‘Steve,’ actually,” before he burst out laughing. He went on to say, “Your bosses aren’t very bright. We are people of African background who were born and raised in the U.S. We are African-Americans. What the heck else would they call us?”

We talked for a bit and he assured me that as a professor of Black History, he was pretty sure he knew his terms.  

I went back to my boss with my findings and she took it to the big bosses.

And, despite what Steve said, they went with “Afro-American” because they agreed with the idea that it sounded hip, happening, and now.

Consequently, an entire year’s work had to be redone because a bunch of people who were so not equipped for their big important jobs needed to meddle in the work of their employees who knew what they were doing and how to do it.

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