The language of oppression

On Canada’a National Aboriginal Day, June 21st, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the name of the day would be changed to National Indigenous People’s Day. I’m so old I remember when Aboriginal/Indigenous people were often referred to as Indians and Half-breeds. In those days, people who were offended by such abuse used the term Native. 

Trudeau’s announcement formalized the fact that the term Aboriginal was starting to make a lot of people uncomfortable, leading them to substitute Indigenous. This sequence of events sounds familiar to me, because — though I’m Canadian to my fingertips — I was raised in the United States. I’m almost old enough to remember a time when the respectful way of referring to African American people was to call them Coloured.

In time, that term dropped out of currency and was replaced by Negro. As the American civil rights movement of the 1960s gained momentum, those of us who advocated civil rights became aware  that “Negro” didn’t sound polite any more and that many leaders of the civil rights movement were calling themselves Black.

But that didn’t last long. In time, Black was replaced by Afro-American, only itself to be superseded by African American. So what we have here are two groups of North Americans, burdened by histories of slavery and conquest respectively, both called by a different name every couple of decades or so. A student of politics is bound to ask: What’s going on here? Why are two groups with histories of oppression subjects of this curious similarity?

The question all but answers itself. Here, in any event, is my answer: Those of us who are neither Indigenous nor African American feel guilty, or at least uncomfortable, with the knowledge that our forefathers and mothers, were oppressors, and that we ourselves may well be continuing that oppression, or at least benefitting from it. Since we can’t, or won’t, bring that history to an end, we express our discomfort by changing the name of that which makes us uncomfortable.

So it isn’t just the oppressed who are burdened by a history of oppression. Oppressors and their descendants carry a burden of their own, not remotely comparable, but very real nonetheless.

One response to “The language of oppression

  1. This is wellstated and explains a lot to me.

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