A curious phenomenon associated with oppression is the names by which the oppressed are called. That’s as true for women & the disabled as it is for Blacks, Latinos, American Indians up & down the Americas, the oppressed castes in India, & other oppressed peoples. Part of the problem is that the oppressors develop an entire vocabulary of hate names so that even today people stumble over what to call people.

In my lifetime, Blacks have been called Negros, coloreds, the n-word & hundreds of other degrading names. Black came out of the civil rights & Black power movements only to be replaced much later with African-American. To my mind, African-American is a term that makes no sense (they don’t call people like me Irish or German-American) but is an attempt to distance politically from the associations with Black power & Black is beautiful. A Black coworker of my generation once said, ‘they keep changing our names to trick us into thinking something has changed for the better.’

Every history of American Indians has a de rigueur introduction about what term the author will use–whether Indian, Indigenous, Native American. On this, we can follow the lead of American Indian activists who refer to themselves as Indians regardless of its historical misnomer by Christopher Columbus, not the founder of the Americas but the executioner of millions of Indians. Many American Indian tribes have actually had to reclaim their original tribal names because they were renamed by the colonizers.

Those of Latino ancestry are also called Hispanics or Chicano with an entire vocabulary of hate names. Same of course for women & for oppressed castes in India. Who can keep up with the terms of abuse? It is up to the oppressed to decide what they want to be called, what they consider respectful. But as my beloved & deceased brother Paul, who was called a “retard” all his life, once said: “I don’t know if they’re called Latinos or Hispanics but it doesn’t matter. We’re all just human beings.”