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The Colored People

We're all colored.

Colored people.

I saw my first and only colored person when I was 4 years old.

I kept hearing the adults talking about “colored people.” A “colored man.” A “colored woman.” A “colored child.”

I wanted to know where these colored people were. I thought they were so lucky to be colored! I kept my eyes peeled, but never saw any. I figured maybe the adults had some kind of special vision and that’s why they could see colored people. I couldn’t wait to be old enough so I could see them, too.

A rainbow man.

Then one day, I was sitting in the back seat of the car and I saw him. We’d stopped for some reason, maybe a red light. Standing on the corner, his skin was very dark. From my angle, I saw a rainbow sheen on his cheekbone.

I was ecstatic. Finally, here was a colored man!

We pulled off, and I yelled to my mother sitting in the front passenger seat that I’d seen a colored man. She turned and gave me this odd look, one I know now means “what the fuck?” I told her about the man on the corner, and the rainbow on his cheek. She smiled and said, “that’s nice, honey,” or something to that effect.

After that, I kept my eye out for more colored people, but didn’t see any. It was disappointing. But I’d seen the one and was happy for that.

So. Mercedes Lackey, a prolific and celebrated sci-fi/fantasy author. During the SFWA convention in May, she repeatedly used the term “colored” in reference to Samuel R. Delaney. He’s a science fiction author whose career goes back to the 60s, and in 2013 was named the 30th SFWA Grandmaster. In 2021, Lackey was named the 57th.

People were outraged. SFWA kicked Lackey off all her other panels. The SFWA Board issued a statement, stating that Lackey had violated its rule to “respect all cultures and communities. Do not make derogatory or offensive statements even as a joke.”

One need not have intent to do harm.

Delaney issued a statement of his own. He doesn’t care.

I feel for Lackey. I know she didn’t mean any harm in using the term. And according to her husband, she’s devastated.

But.

“Colored” is a derogatory term for Black people. It was fine during the first half of the 20th century. Black women referred to themselves as “colored ladies.” Whites referred to Black people as “colored.” It was certainly kinder and more respectful than other terms for Blacks. Like “coon.” Like “jig.” And of course, the long-lived and still alive, “nigger.”

But.

We are in the third decade of the 21st century. What may have respectable a century ago, is no longer. Language changes, and so do labels. That race doesn’t exist, that it’s a societal construct, is not the issue. It’s what we live with because we live in a society that segregates people by skin color. Labels used to refer to Black people in the past have always been derogatory. They were meant to convey in no uncertain terms that we were not just “different.” We were inferior. The 13th Amendment removed us from the category of personal  property and elevated us to human, but we were inferior humans. It was pounded into our heads from all sides, including our own.

We were made to feel inferior. Not just by others, but by our own.

I remember as children, when we were being rambunctious and loud, we were told by our elders to “don’t act colored.” After that admonition, we settled down because everybody knew colored people were undisciplined and unmannered. Rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.

“Colored,” though it might be preferable to other labels, is still hurtful. Even more so today because after all our struggle for civil rights and so much more, there are a helluva lot of people walking around who still think we’re “inferior humans” or worse. And I’m not just talking about Billy Bob Redneck from Mississippi. From Billy Bob, right on up the line to the CEO and the Chairman of the Board.

I’m not on the “beat down Lackey because she’s a horrible racist” bandwagon. Again, I don’t think she meant to offend anyone. And I don’t believe she’s racist. Still, for someone who’s been active for decades in civil rights, gay rights, and trans rights, what she said was totally inexplicable. It’s not like she’s a 90-year-old woman who’s been living in the attic for 60 years (although I wouldn’t accept it from her, either).

Don’t tell me to “get over it.”

Was the outrage an overreaction? I don’t think so, but it could have been more civil. I’m sure others think it was an overreaction. But for those who do, look and understand where it’s coming from. We’re talking about a people whose very existence has always been disregarded, never mind their feelings. Disregarded then and now. Told to “get over slavery.” Told to “get over Jim Crow.” How in holy hell is it possible to “get over it” when we still bear the psychological scars from the lash? When we are “equal before the law,” but not equal in the real world?

And just so you know, Jim Crow is not dead. Mr. Crow is alive and well. The signs separating the races — all races — are simply more subtle these days. A Black or Latinx person with an impeccable financial history is denied a loan, yet is granted to a white person with a less-than-stellar history. In an open carry state, a white man walks along the street with a rifle slung over his back and no one has a problem with it. A Black man does the same thing and the police have him on the ground in a hot minute.

There are those who throw into our faces the preeminent organizations that have championed the rights of Black people, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the lesser-known National Council for Negro Women. Should these organizations replace Colored and Negro with Black or something else identifying their mission?

Yes. They should. If it’s a slur to call Black people “colored” or “negro,” why on earth should they be an acceptable part of the names of the two most prominent organizations fighting for Black justice and equality today?

Change them. I’m sure W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McCleod Bethune would approve.

 

 

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