Rochelle and I were talking about race, geography and nationality. It began when she referred to some co-workers at the home for the disabled, where she had recently worked, as “those Africans.” I asked where they were from and she said they were from Jamaica. “Why don’t you call them Jamaicans?” I asked. “I just call all of them Africans,” was her answer. It was time for the interview to be over, but I brought the subject back up a week later at the next interview. It seemed a good topic to cover on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Rochelle is 29, but she had been watching the news, and she did remember some of her history from school. She vaguely knew what had happened 50 years ago, and why it was important.
“So, why do you call Jamaicans Africans?” I again asked. “And what do you call your own race?” I added. “Well, they have an accent, so I, we, just call them Africans. I call myself Black,” said Rochelle. I had a map of the world and we discussed where the countries were and a bit about the slave trade and colonialism. “Why don’t you call yourself African-American?” I asked. I did explain that I was sometimes confused as to what to call what long ago was referred to as “the Negro race.” Rochelle didn’t have an answer but did tell me how her 5-year-old son had recently discovered that some people called him black. “I’m not black; I’m brown,” he had told his mother. “He was thinking of the color of crayons,” she told me. “He had just learned his colors in pre-school and now he was trying to figure out how he could possibly be black,” she laughed. “Now he is confused.” The map was on the table, so I asked what she called Asians. “I call them all Chinese,” said Rochelle with a laugh. There are a lot of Vietnamese where we live, and I asked if she even called Vietnamese people Chinese. “I call them all Chinese because they have slanted eyes. And I call all people who speak Spanish, Spanish, even if they can’t speak Spanish, like Bobbie.” Bobbie had been a co-worker. She has no accent and could be a mix of several nationalities or ethnic groups. “She gets mad when I call her Spanish,” Rochelle told me, “but she’s Spanish.” I asked Rochelle if maybe she didn’t like to be called “African-American” because she is an American and she doesn’t even know anybody in her family who has ever left Texas, let alone visited Africa. “Yes,” she said, “I’m not African. I’m American. But I am Black.”
Rochelle has never been out of the state she was born in. Geography is not something she knows a lot about. When we were looking at the map of the world and talking about where different people who now live in the United States had come from, she seemed very interested. “So if you don’t like being called African-American, the Jamaicans probably don’t like being called Africans, either, and the Vietnamese don’t like being called Chinese,” I suggested. “Well, it is easier,” Rochelle said. “I would like to travel somewhere else, though,” she told me. “Maybe Louisiana.” I remember after hurricane Katrina, Rochelle had only bad things to say about the refugees from Louisiana who came to our town. People from Louisiana had a different accent from the ones that prevail in Texas; they did their hair differently; and they dressed differently. The Black refugees were also often darker skinned. “Yes, they are just different,” Rochelle had told me when we were working together back then. I had told her she was prejudiced. “People are often prejudiced when they don’t really know much about different cultures,” I had said. Rochelle and I had talked about this now and again over the last eight years or so. It was not a new topic for us, but in this interview we talked more in depth.
Our discussions on race will continue, but one thing we both were sure of when we finished the day’s interview: Rochelle’s 5 year old son was certainly correct. He was not black. He was brown. The United States thinks of itself as a melting pot, and Binney and Smith, makers of Crayolas, had to discontinue the crayon color “flesh” from its mix a long time ago. It was quite popular in the 1950’s and a real reflection of the times. With luck, Rochelle will be following the Crayola company’s lead, and modernizing her terminology, as well. It’s not that language creates racism, but it can certainly reinforce it and perpetuate interethnic insensitivity, even on the part of people who have suffered from both, themselves.