Frequently I hear someone refer to a person or a group of people as being “nonwhite,” and it usually leads me to plead that we identify people by what they are rather than by what they are not. I don’t want to be called a “non-female,” for instance; I have spent a lot of time and energy coming to a positive sense of what it means to be a white male, and want that identity to be for everyone an important part of who I am.
Generally people don’t go around talking about “non-females.” The “non” word is usually used in relation to race, and, while it is sometimes heard in “non-black,” it is most commonly heard in the term “nonwhite.” It may be worth some examination as to why that term is offensive and inappropriate to many as well as inaccurate for all.
“Nonwhite” is obviously less than fully accurate; it tells us almost nothing about the person or group to whom the word is applied. Is the person Black, Asian, Native American, or some mixture of colors? The term tells me nothing except what the person is not; beyond that I am left to speculate and choose from a number of possibilities. It communicates little and leaves me with many questions. Who is this person? All I know is that she/he is one among many groups of color, who compose most of the world population. Identity remains obscure.
“Nonwhite” is a term which fails to identify who this person of color is, and therefore runs the risk of failing to acknowledge an identity which may have been won at great price. Just as I have spent time and energy coming to a positive sense of what it means to be both male and white (two oppressor classifications), most individual Blacks in this country, certainly as a group, have won a positive identity through great struggle. To use the term “nonwhite” is to ignore and to minimize the importance of that struggle. It is almost as if the speaker were to say, “It doesn’t really matter how hard you have worked to come to a sense of who you are, to me you are simply not white.”
“Nonwhite” is offensive to many because it implies a standard by which people are being judged or measured, and clearly the standard is white. Anyone who is not white is just “non,” as if nothing! Very few people who use the word would mean that or would even want to imply it, but that is the value and meaning which is carried by the word. Why not identify the person or group by who they are?
So much for now from this non-African, non-Asian, non-South American, non-Greek, non-Irish, non-female, nonentity, who has written this on a “non-typewriter.”