My first role at Theatre Memphis was that of an Egyptian warrior named Bel Affris in a production of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar & Cleopatra
. Accepting the small, but showy part came at an itchy cost: I had to shave all my body hair. Why? So the carpet growing on my chest arms and legs wouldn't mat when I was painted brown, and thus transformed into a convincing Egyptian. My richly detailed costumes, photographed for a spread in the Commercial Appeal, included a couple of wicked swords... and an afro wig. Behind the scenes it wasn't uncommon to hear comparisons to Othello and Aunt Jemima back to back. To me, what's most shocking about this story in 2017, is how not remotely shocking it was in 1987.
I mention all of that to illustrate a point that should be, but is seldom obvious. What was normal and fine only yesterday— particularly in regard to things like race and gender identity — may be archaic or offensive today. On the lighter side of the ongoing struggle, an entire situation comedy trope has been built around the fact that, as a culture, we're so pathetically fragmented and behind in some areas that we exist in a constant state of catching up. Everybody will be familiar with scenes from TV, film, and real life where some older "out of touch" character makes a racially insensitive comment unaware that s/he's said something wrong. This sets up the real joke when a younger "with it" character corrects the elder using hipper language that's either ironic, or (recognized by savvy viewers as being) similarly out of date. To borrow a line from Anthropology professor Yolanda Moses
, "at this cultural moment in the U.S., we still live in a racialized social and cultural hierarchy, and our language continues to reflect our ongoing attempts to grapple with that reality." The key word there is "ongoing." The dustup and debate
following City Court Clerk Kay Robilio's setback-inducing
use of the term "man of color," during a city council meeting is part of that ongoing struggle.
There was some initial confusion as to what Robilio had actually said. Was it "colored" or was it "person of color?" It was, of course, neither, but this is how news spread across social media platforms and people attempted to interpret the former judge's meanings, and debate the legitimacy of "of color." Here's the thing: these conversations always devolve into fights over intention and decorum. These are rabbit holes, and entirely beside the point. What is the point? Well, I think this bit's pretty good. William Safire wrote
it in 1988, only a year after I allowed myself to be painted brown: "When used by whites, people of color usually carries a friendly and respectful connotation, but should not be used as a synonym for black; it refers to all racial groups that are not white."
Think about every piece of that, including "friendly and respectful," then proceed.
Robilio fumbled the whole exchange referring to an individual as a, "man of color." This elicited surprise in
the room, and a correction from Councilman Berlin Boyd. But even if she'd gotten it right the first time, it seems likely the use of an idiom aggregating non-whites to describe one person would still raise eyebrows in 2017, particularly in a majority African-American city with a majority not-African-American leadership. This isn't about Robilio, of course. Her awkward attempt to be correct — because that's what she was fumbling to do — is more indicative of systemic cultural issues, than personal ones. It's symptomatic of where we live now, as language slowly and uncertainly evolves away from identities determined by their relationship to whiteness. But, until the two are uncoupled we'll continue to see "acceptable" descriptors eliciting side-eye, and unease. As is to be expected when you define folks by what they aren't.
In this case the speaker was imprecise and mangled language that would have been technically incorrect even if she'd gotten it right. But she wasn't out of line and neither were critics. In the situation comedy we call Memphis, Robilio's playing her part as the "out of touch" grandma — A trope perfectly essayed in this
vintage cartoon. She's not on trial here. And we'd all know that if things weren't so suddenly personalized on social media, or if rhetoric was still a part of a basic education. It's language that's in the hot seat, and here's my hot take on it. While "people of color," is an old expression,
it's only been a popular one for the last 30-years or so. It emerged as a status quo alternative to "non-white," making a monolith of many groups, while continuing to define against whiteness. It's been adopted by multi-racial groups, and is perfectly mainstream today. So was "colored" when it was enshrined by the NAACP, and there's no compelling reason to be protective of the expression in circumstances when there's pushback from people it's used to describe. In the meantime, "People of color," or "Communities of color" is best used for describing diverse ranges of people who aren't white. When describing an individual it's sound practice to be considerate and specific.