Serena de Souza

Why not call black people black?

2006-04-05 09:47

Serena de Souza

When my boyfriend, Theo, was living in London, he used to earn a living by temping. This meant that he would often spend only a couple of days at a company, generally helping out, before moving on to the next place. Of course, he didn't build many lasting workplace relationships.

So, one day, when he was manning the reception area of a company, and someone came to the desk to ask for "Martha", he had no idea who they were talking about.

He tried to get a description out of the visitor. The visitor twisted and squirmed and stuttered out that Martha had black hair. Theo racked his brains with no result, and asked for a little more help.

The visibly uncomfortable visitor added that she was quite tall, and then told Theo that she was slightly overweight. Still, Theo couldn't find a positive match.

After a few more awkward moments, Theo asked the visitor to accompany him down the passage to find Martha. When they did, it turned out that the source of all the discomfort was that Martha was a black woman, and her visitor was too caught up in his own political correctness to mention it.

Help me find you

I had a similar experience once with a group of friends having a picnic at the Emmerentia rose gardens. One girl was having a conversation on her cellphone with another friend who was joining us. She was trying to give pointers as to how we could be located.

"We're under the tree on the second level down from the parking lot," she said.

"There are a couple of groups, but you can see us because there's about seven of us; there's a blonde girl and a big guy with dark hair in a red shirt and a black girl in a big hat."

The black girl in the big hat was fine with this description, but her white husband was infuriated. He rounded on their friend, asking her why she had to label his wife in that way. His wife did her best to calm him down, but there was mild tension for the rest of the picnic.

Don't swear

Now, call me insensitive, but I think that both the reaction of my friend's husband and the political correctness of Martha's visitor were inappropriate.

Why shouldn't we be allowed to mention the colour of a person's skin when describing them? If we really have left the shackles of past discrimination behind us, skin colour should be as innocuous a characteristic as height or hair colour.

And sure, no one should forget that in the very recent past, skin colour was used as the basis for deplorable atrocities committed the world over in general and in South Africa in particular, but by avoiding mentioning it now, we're giving it the status of a swear word that is unmentionable in polite circles.

Surely it makes more sense to be able to describe skin colour as nothing other than one of a range of differentiators that make us unique?

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