Luis Suarez, Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, Tiger Woods, & racial identity.

by Lee Pinkerton and Samantha Asumadu

patrice-evra-luis-suarezIn January 2012 Liverpool player Luis Suarez was given a £40,000 fine for calling Man United player Patrice Evra ‘a negrito’.  Suarez claimed that he meant no offence by it, since in his country ‘negrito’ is a term of affection.  No doubt like ‘sambo’ used to be in this country!

In the same month Chelsea and England captain John Terry was charged with racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. TV pundit Alan Hansen had to apologise for using the term ‘coloured’ when discussing the issue.  But former Prime Minister’s daughter Carol Thatcher made an even bigger gaff when she referred to mixed-race French tennis player Jo Wilfried Tsonga as a ‘frog golliwog’, apparently thinking that this was perfectly acceptable. Some white people of a certain age still think that terms like ‘golliwog’ and ‘coloured’ are OK, but they tend to be old people who still refer to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay, and the radio as ‘the wireless’.

In a recent BET interview, when Zoe Saldana was asked about her racial identity she said:

I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time, when in reality it’s not something that drives me or wakes me up out of bed everyday….I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like….I literally run away from people that use words like ethnic. It’s preposterous! To me there is no such thing as people of color cause in reality people aren’t white. Paper is white. People are pink. So to all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, “What are you, what are you” is the most uncomfortable question and it’s literally the most repetitive question.” Zoe Saldana

zoesaldana‘What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Person of Color’ Saldana is an up and coming actress and the protagonist in a new film about Nina Simone, so a lot of attention is being paid currently to her comments on race and racial identity. From the essay ‘I Spy Stupid: Zoe Saldana Thinks There’s “No Such Thing” As People of Color?’

We usually hear this silly post-racial rhetoric from white people who think it makes them sound progressive and hip to say they don’t “see race”–despite its empirical falseness and inherent denial of the history, culture, policies, and personal realities inextricably attached to race.

But its particularly interesting when a person of color–who is undeniably affected by said color–embraces color-blindness. Especially someone like Zoe Saldana, a celebrity and actress, whose craft is entirely dependent on visual aspects–namely, her body.’ Erica Brazelton

Jo+Wilfried+Tsonga+Championships+Wimbledon+tWjX15slq7Dx
You have to feel sorry for white people.  They don’t know what to call us these days.  It used to be ‘coloured’, then it became ‘Black’, then ‘Afro-Caribbean’, then ‘African-Caribbean’.  Now it’s ‘BME’.  Poor white people, – they just can’t keep up. Everyone should know by now that the term ‘nigger’ is offensive and should never be used, but white people get confused when they hear their Black friends using the term amongst themselves as a term of affection.  Does that mean that they are also allowed to use it, as long as no offence is intended?

Anyone who works with local authorities will be familiar with the term B.M.E. (meaning Black and Minority Ethnic).  This is the current politically correct term to describe us Black folks, and anyone who isn’t white and English. Personally I don’t like the term – you’re reducing all these diverse races and cultures down to three letters – not even a word, but just three letters.  It sounds like a disease like CJD, or H.I.V. or B.S.E.  I prefer the term Black.

It began to replace the term ‘negro’ in the US in the 1960’s as the parallel between the words ‘black and white was meant to underscore the quality of the races.  In the 90’s ‘Black’ was replaced by ‘Afro-American’ and then ‘African-American’.  In 2001 even the word ‘minority’ was banned by the San Diego city council because it was deemed disparaging to non-whites. ‘No matter how you slice it, minority means less than’, said a Boston College official, where the preferred term is AHANA – an acronym for African- American, Asian, and Native American.

But let’s re-examine that term ‘Black’.  It is a political term intended to unify that mixed group that white people throughout the hundreds of years of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism had tried to divide and conquer.

According to the racist ideology that was adopted in the Caribbean, North America and South Africa, (and still evident in the colonised minds of Black folks the world over) the lighter/closer to white you were the better, exemplified in the poem ……….

If you’re white you’re alright, if you’re brown stick around, but if you’re Black get back’!”

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In South Africa’s Apartheid system, people were divided into Blacks, whites and Coloureds.  In North America they went even further, dividing slaves and their descendants into ‘Negro’, ‘half-caste’, ‘mulatto’, ‘quadroon’, and ‘octaroon’ depending on how much white blood they had in them.  The one thing that they could never be was white, as that would give them the same property rights as whites and would run the risk of the slave master’s illegitimate children claiming their share of the master’s estate.

Halle Berry & Gabriel Aubry Spend Time With NahlaSo black people were kept as second class citizens with the ‘One Drop’ law – meaning that if you had just one drop of Black blood in you, you were counted as Negro.  This has led to the strange modern day phenomenon of celebrities of mixed parentage like Mariah Carey identifying themselves as Black, and actress Halle Berry, (who herself has one black and one white parent) saying that she will raise her daughter (who’s father is white) as Black.

By ‘claiming’ Black rather than trying to ‘pass’ for white (which presumably would lead to an easier life), these people of mixed parentage are displaying their allegiance. Unlike Mariah, Tiger Woods resisted attempts to categorise him as Black, preferring the term ‘Cablinasian’ to reflect the full diversity of his parents multi-cultural ancestry. (His father Earl was of African-American, Chinese and Native-American ancestry, his mother Kutilda is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent).

tiger-woods-familybigThese recent changes in terminology are supposedly for greater accuracy, since Black people don’t actually have Black skin, just as Chinese people are not actually yellow, and Red Indians are not red or even from India! By using the term ‘Native-American’ instead it shows who was there first.  The term ‘African-American’ shows that the Black people in America actually had a history that pre-dated slavery.  However this quest for accuracy has not sent people scrambling for a more accurate term for the descendants of Europeans.  Perhaps the fact that you never hear the term ‘European American’ or ‘white Australian’ is indicative that despite historical facts to the contrary, the descendants of white European immigrants are viewed as  the natural inhabitants of these countries.

The fact is that people are so sensitive about finding politically correct terms for ethnic groups is because we are the oppressed we are the party.  White people don’t care what they are called because they are the dominant group with all the power.  They control the political agenda, the allocation of resources, the educational curriculum, and yes even the use of language.  Fiddling around with the labels we have is not going to change that.

Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.”  Alice Walker

Lee Pinkerton was born in London, the child of Jamaican and Guyanese immigrants. After studying Sociology and Psychology at University he spent the 90s as a music journalist, first as a freelancer for magazines such as Mix Mag, Echoes, and Hip-Hop Connection and then as the Arts Editor for ‘Britain’s Best Black newspaper’- The Voice.
In addition to this he also wrote a book the Many Faces of Michael Jackson published in 1997.
His latest book The Problem With Black Men examines the causes of the social problems facing Black men in Britain and America today.
He can currently be heard as a regular on-air contributor to the ‘ACE show’ on BBC Radio Derby and his political polemics and cultural criticism can be read on the blog-site The Black Watch and his daily musings on Twitter @_Runawayslave.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me B.M.E!

  1. Thanks for Bugs Mcgee your well reasoned and argued comment. In response I have two points to make. 1) the one drop rule IS alive and well. There is clearly a racial hierarchy in operation around the world. White people sit at the top and the darker you are, the lower down the scale you sit. So there are those that consider themselves as purely white, who run things, and the rest of us Black and brown peoples who beg for favour, or try and pass, or bleach our skin in an effort to move up the hierarchy. 2) I use the term Black as a political term rather than an accurate genetic description. But we are still all working this thing out. So as an academic, how would you suggest that we people of African and Asian ancestry refer to ourselves?

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    1. Hello,

      Thanks for your reply.

      I cannot deny the racial hierarchy that exists around the world, it’s more that I am troubled by the need to pull mixed raced people into one definition or another; that’s by both white and ethnic communities. Members of all communities (some, not all) seem to subscribe to the idea of a ‘one drop theory’ but this overlooks the lived experiences of mixed race people. Often ethnic people (I’ve seen on Twitter) complain about their voices being heard – rightly – but mixed race people face this too and perhaps more so because this comes from both sides (to put it very simply, I don’t mean to trivialise it).

      In terms of definition for black and brown people (as you put it) this is a tough one academically – for us, we only ever define people how they wish to be & identities are fluid. I specialised in sub-Saharan African diversity & the plethora of descriptions that people used to describe themselves to geneticists never included ‘colour’ etc (there are political reasons for that yes) but they came down to complex interfaces between language and ethnicity. We always respected what they defined themselves as and often we couldn’t even use the term ‘ethnic’ as certain groups define themselves linguistically. My point is that we had to try and find a way of accurately defining groups based on how they best described themselves.

      This is academic, yes – and there are many political structures which don’t manifest in this way, particularly with regard to racism – racists don’t differentiate people – but many groups worldwide do & that was more if what I was trying to say. (Though I’m sorry that it was so long-winded)!

      Kind Regards

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      1. Oh dear. Another long reply but I’m none the wiser. You’ve responded but you haven’t really answered my question. A few things are clear
        1) race is a social construct that doesn’t really exist, but everyone behaves as though it does exist.
        2) most non-white people do not like being referred to as BME, or BAME, or ethnic minorities etc etc.
        3) There are those who argue that we should identify by the land mass from which we originate rather than a skin colour. Thus all people of African decent should describe themselves as African, but as someone who is also of Caribbean decent I find this problematic, as ‘true-born’ Africans do not regard us as such.
        4) ‘Black’ is a political term (hence why I always capitalise it) designed to bring the various islands/ethnicities/countries that were the victims of colonialism together. Until someone can give me a better term, i’ll keep using it.

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  2. Hello,

    I found your article interesting but I have to disagree about the ‘problematic’ term ‘ethnic’. For me (as a population geneticist) ‘ethnicity’ actually incorporates more information about diversity – including cultural, linguistic and religious around the world, when I think of PoC I think only of race, and the term feels as though it is reducing all differences to that level alone.

    A few months ago, the Writers of Colour twitter account hosted a Twitter debate about the use of “PoC” and “WoC” and a lot of people (from ethnic backgrounds) disagreed with the term, though they are often not heard on the internet; however, the ones that stuck out the most were from mixed race voices, many (not all) said that the term was problematic as it is included them, yet some are half white, so the term implies that the “one drop theory” rhetoric is alive i.e. if you have a bit of “colour” in you then you are a “PoC”.

    I understand your problem with the term “minority” but for me (as an ethnic Indian woman), on an academic, personal, and social level (i.e. being aware of different ethnic voices), I think that the term is reductionist and makes it difficult to truly tackle layers of prejudice in our society – including those between ethnic groups. I don’t mean to imply that the term is wrong, merely that there are a lot of ethnic people who would disagree with your stance in this article.

    Kind Regards

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