Politically Correct, Linguistically Out-to-Lunch

As a friend and I waited for a dinner table in a crowded restaurant, our chit-chat turned to television. After the obligatory "Seinfeld" requiem, the conversation moved to the new series "Ally McBeal." The title character's improbable romantic life is a major theme of the show, and soon my friend was sharing the story of a particular love interest.

"Do you remember? He was one of Ally's clients ... a doctor ... tall, attractive guy." I shook my head blankly. "He was on trial for performing an unauthorized operation ... he had short, dark hair ... was slightly balding..."

The description continued until, finally, I recalled the actor. But I was puzzled. My dinner companion had meticulously avoided mentioning a particular characteristic which could have helped jar my memory. Namely, the performer is African-American. It seemed a minor yet peculiar omission. It rendered us momentarily silent, with the unspoken fact lingering uncomfortably in the air.

Did she simply forget? Doubtful, given all the specifics she recollected. Did she consider it unimportant? Surely it was no less significant than the actor's height or hair, and more objective than commenting on his looks. I could only conclude she deemed it inappropriate to mention race.

I understand the rationale for this variety of political correctness. We rarely indicate the race of a white actor, so why do so when the actor is black? It is similar to calling Toni Morrison an "African-American writer" rather than more sensibly referring to the Nobel laureate as a writer alone. Sometimes there is no useful purpose served by alluding to race, and doing so could indeed be considered offensive at worst, or pointless at best.

I don't wish to live in a world in which my skin tone becomes my single, all-important attribute, and I would be offended if, based on my racial background, someone extrapolated assumptions about my beliefs, intelligence, or customs. However, I'm equally wary of a world in which the mere mention of race becomes taboo.

The information my friend so gingerly sidestepped was completely relevant, no more or less objectionable than the other traits proffered. Ironically, such painstaking efforts not to offend often prove most offensive, because the racial question is highlighted by its studious exclusion.

Dodging race suggests we're uncomfortable with it, as if the color of someone's skin were a dirty little secret we fear facing. Regrettably, that's what drives much of the politically correct lexicon: fear. We're paranoid of unintentionally offending, or of appearing linguistically unfashionable. But tip-toeing around race only fosters ignorance of it, providing the ideal breeding ground for racism and the other ills against which political correctness supposedly protects us.

In his introduction to "The Elements of Style," E.B. White cites the dictum that if you're unsure how to pronounce a word, you should say that word even more loudly. "Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?"

This is sound advice for the PC era. Better to speak our minds honestly, without apprehension or hypocrisy. If unwittingly we utter something offensive, we will likely hear about it and be able to correct ourselves, but based on a greater understanding of the offense and not out of fear or ignorance. Employed freely, language and communication are our best defenses against prejudice. It would be tragic if political correctness rendered them its accomplices instead.

* Carlos Lozada is an economic analyst in Atlanta.

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