human behavior

What’s in a name?

To be a black American in Australia is to be culturally irrelevant. You have no place in the ethnic dynamics or racial consciousness of Australians, and the people around you have a very limited frame of reference in which to understand you. Despite how much I may talk about being black on this blog, I’m almost never conscious of it in Sydney. That is, until someone brings us up.

I’m doing my paediatric rotation at the moment, and during a lecture on orthopaedic conditions, the silver-haired doctor giving the lecture began discussing a rare condition called chondrolysis:

Chondrolysis is a very rare condition. You will likely never encounter it, as it mainly affects Negroes.

Whoa. That got my attention. He said it again, too.

Dude, your age is showing.

For the record, I thought it was funny, not insulting. Why would it be insulting? That’s what we were called at one point. That’s what we called ourselves. What I found funny, was that he was about three names behind the times. I’m guessing this guy had become so used to the name “Negro” during his formative and young adult years, and had so little opportunity to discuss us in Australia, that he never became accustomed to using newer names. But surely he must have heard of them? We just elected Barack Obama president for goodness sake, and that election was all over the press in Australia. No one was calling him the first Negro president. Perhaps he was too old and too tired to be bothered trying to keep up with our ever-changing mood about what we want to be called.

I know another woman in Australia in her 70’s, originally from Britain, but who’s been here for ages. When we first met, she told me some story about a gentleman she vaguely knew:

He’s like you. He’s coloured too.

Say what?! I’m only 33 years old. I’ve never been called that. My Aussie husband looked at me instantly to gauge my reaction. I thought it was weird. And yeah, pretty funny.

Honey, your age is really showing.

You know, I don’t think this lovely woman has ever referred to my race again. I’m betting she has the same problem so many non-blacks have. They don’t know what the hell to call us anymore. We keep changing our minds and gettin’ pissed as hell if you haven’t caught up. But I think we’ve settled things now. We’re “African-American”, or just plain old “black”. And yet the name “black” still has the potential to confuse…

I was speaking to some white Australian one day, I can’t remember who, and I made reference to my being black. [By the way, I’m Will Smith’s skin color.] She looked at me with surprise and remarked:

Black? Oh no, I don’t consider you black.

Um. Well, I am.

Well, I wouldn’t consider you that.

Wow. I had no comeback after that. The last time I checked, my identity wasn’t defined by this woman. This isn’t 1850 lady. Weird. I should’ve asked what she did consider me, but I was too flummoxed to get my thoughts straight.

In hindsight, I’m thinking this woman didn’t get the memo about the meaning of the term “black”.  She wasn’t very old, so that was her ignorance showing. She also spoke the word “black” as if it were something you wouldn’t want to be, but maybe that’s my paranoia showing. I wonder what she thought “black” described exactly. Still, I wasn’t offended. Just confused.

So now I’ve got a new theory about these people and the names they use. This could all come down to political correctness. Conservatives in the U.S. may think political correctness has gone wild in the States, but Australia may have us beat. It’s a rare day in Sydney that I hear Australians use the word “whites”. They refer to themselves as “‘Australian” and their various “ethnic” groups by their ancestral nationality: Lebanese, Chinese, Aboriginal, etc. In the field of medicine, they’ll get more specific and refer to “Caucasians” or people of “Anglo-Saxon heritage”.  But they never use the word “white” to describe themselves, or “black” to describe the Indigenous. Interestingly, the Indigenous don’t have a problem using these words. It’s all “black fellas” and “white fellas” to them.

So I’m thinking Aussies find the ubiquitous American use of the names “black” and “white” rather crude. I’m thinking they reckon themselves more enlightened, more sophisticated, and more tolerant a people these days – now that they’ve come so far from their Whites Only Immigration Policy. And they have come far – further than Americans I’d wager.

So I’m thinking they consider the word “black” an unacceptable term and now struggle to come up with a better one. So they pull out the last name they remember being in use, and in so doing, betray not only their age, but also their knowledge of modern American culture, their attitude about political correctness, and perhaps even their opinion of “blackness”.

I don’t really care what they call me, but it is fascinating how much they can reveal about themselves with the use of a name.

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