Dehumanisation is the process of treating people like things, and to treat a person as a thing is to spread injustice and unfairness. And whether we acknowledge it or not, everyone does this every day. Many people do it unthinkingly, without realising it. Some deliberately do it in order to make the awful reality of their job more bearable. And some people do it without acknowledging they’re doing it or without caring that they’re doing it.
I’m going to talk about a specific example today – I may return to this subject at a later date and expand on the categories, but today I am going to concentrate on one method of unthinkingly treating people as things. What I am about to explain may seem counter-intuitive to you, but please bear with me.
One of the worst offenders when it comes to dehumanising activity, is political correctness – specifically, using politically correct terms to describe groups of people. There is nothing wrong with describing a societal demographic as “black people” or “muslims”. There is, of course, something wrong with describing them as “niggers” or “terrorists” – one is a terrible racial slur that makes me feel a bit ill when I hear it, the other is a paranoid generalisation that is less than 0.001% accurate.
To try and counter the negative-emotion stimulation caused by insults, slurs and inaccuracies, a mode of describing people other than the “default” white, anglo-saxon, heterosexual male with no physical or mental disabilities and a disposable income has been arrived at, mostly by white, anglo-saxon, heterosexual males with no physical or mental disabilities and a disposable income. These are the “politically correct” terms for groups of people. Whilst many of them are simply descriptive (“blacks”, “muslims”, etc), there are some that are so desperate to avoid sounding like they could cause offence that they become offensive. “Vertically challenged”, for instance, instead of “short people”. Or, the king of the heap, “people of colour”.
“People of colour.” You might think there’s nothing wrong with that. You might think that’s a perfectly acceptable way of describing anyone who wasn’t born with pale skin without causing offence. It’s not. Think about it for a moment – this is not just a collective noun on steroids, this is the biggest dehumanising attempt at WASHMwnPoMDaaDI-normative description ever. It is lumping in every possible skin colour except one, under one catch-all banner. Even in the most segregated or bigoted countries, I doubt an Ethiopian expatriate will have the same concerns and problems as an Italian expatriate, and yet using this phrase suggests they do. “People of colour” includes anyone with genetics originating from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Romania, the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, China, Japan, Mongolia, the central Asian -stan countries, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, the USA (white people are the immigrants there, remember), Mexico, and anywhere south of the northern edge of the Tropic of Cancer. It’s a phrase that includes 90% of the world’s population, and doesn’t really describe any one of them. And then we get onto the linguistic aspect – “people of colour”. No other collective noun uses of like that. A flock of birds, a school of fish, a herd of wildebeest. Yes, it is a collective noun, it collects many single units together to describe them all at once. A parliament of owls, a swarm of bees. A singular of plural. “People of colour” is plural of singular. Turn it round? “Colours of person”, “person of colours” or “colour of people”.
I read a modern-day Aesop some years ago. A black man goes into a cafe and asks for a cup of coffee. The white man behind the counter tells him, “we don’t serve coloured people here.” The black man replies: “When I was born, I was brown. I am brown now, and when I die, I will be brown. I am, and always will be brown. When you were born, you were pink. When you are angry, you are red. When you are sick, you are green. When you are cold, you are blue. When you are dirty, you are grey. And you have the nerve to call me ‘coloured’?”
It’s the “of” that’s the problem, really. It implies that the people belong to the colour, not the colour belonging to the people. They belong to the colour, so everything they say and do is defined by their skin colour. “Black music”, “black art”, “black history month”. When was the last time you heard The Arctic Monkeys described as “white music”, or a painting by Van Gogh as “white art”? And when is there going to be a “white history month”? I can think of only one black musician whose output was not defined by his skin colour, and he was Jimi Hendrix. A truly exceptional and talented musician, and he died at the age of 27. Stevie Wonder? The blind black piano player. Michael Jackson? I would never describe him as great or particularly talented, but he had cosmetic surgery to look less genetically black. Ray Charles? Soul and gospel maestro – both types of music aggressively marketed to “black” demographics, and largely not to “white” demographics. How many people are even aware of his disco tracks? When did you last hear Lemmy Kilmister or Jools Holland described as playing “white music”?
Politically correct terms may seek to minimize of avoid causing offence to those being described, but they should not be used to minimize or avoid connecting with those being described. Saying “people of colour” is a very hard disconnect between the speaker and the described. It says, “they are different from me, and they are also different to each other, even if I am only talking about one particular subset of the group.” It says, “I cannot even be bothered to accurately describe who am I talking about, so long as I avoid offending them all.” I say, “I don’t want to offend people, but I’m going to describe you according to the needs of the situation or context, so I might.”