People riding the New York subway are predominantly non-white. This is in part because elderly white women avoid subways as risky either being jostled or worse victimized and prefer riding buses. Still, all over in New York we see great many non-white faces, and this is probably true of most of our major cities in this country. To think of it, the population globally is certainly heavily non-white, and I am one of the world's non-whites.
Non-white refers to all but those who are ethnically white. This seems obvious, straightforward, and non-problematic. It is an officially sanctioned word that appears in all kinds of formal documents, like the census report and medical records. It is nevertheless a curious word, to say the least, and even more curious a concept. I dare say it is a tortured concept. I just don't get it; to me it is nonsensical.
Non-white could mean those who are not white. But those who are not white are all those who are not white. I'm not quibbling. I'm genuinely befuddled. The word is a negation but in practical usage it signifies exclusion -- all but those who are white.
First of all, this is lexically peculiar. The use of the prefix non as "all but" is non-standard. Consider some other words that start with non: non-stop, non-profit, non-skid, non-violence, non-committal, non-problematic, non-standard, non-professional, etc. In these instances non means without (stop), not for (profit), anti-(skid), abstaining from (violence), refusing to be (committal), free of being (problematic), not conforming to (the standard), and unqualified to be (professional). Substituting non in these words by all but does not quite work.
Secondly, in its application to population at large, the term deals with a fixed entity, in this case, a demographic whole. That is how non-white is made into a term of exclusion. As a term of exclusion, non-white, unlike white, comprises a wide range of ethnic groups; and, therefore, it fails to define. It is a non-definable term. While white is slim in variation, non-white covers blacks and browns, the skin colors ranging from ebony to light tan with an enormous range of tones between them. These are definable colors familiar to cosmeticians in the names of make-up foundations: coffee, chocolate, carob, cocoa, mocha, cappuccino, mahogany, caramel, bronze, siena, sable, cinnamon, suntan, beige, honey, and so forth. One might add to these such pantyhose tints as chestnut, maroon, and taupe. White is a relatively fixed color; brown is wildly heterogenous.
Thirdly, then, non-white is a term that defies the evidence of observation. It is not only illogical but also false and useless. One might as well speak of black and non-black as of white and non-white. But, better, if we were true to observation, while some blacks are black, ebony-colored blacks comprise a small minority among people categorized as blacks. Most blacks are brown -- in all ranges from dark to light. Anyone can check this out standing at a busy street corner downtown. Then, whites are not all white, and some whites are not quite so white. So, taxonomically, it may make more sense to speak of blacks, browns, and whites; and browns are the colors of the faces we encounter in our urban centers today. Those of us categorized as non-white are more accurately and definably brown; and we are the majority. In terms of skin colors, as opposed to designated ethnic names, blacks and whites are certainly minorities; they may be called non-brown.
A term of exclusion excludes. So, some may think that setting aside a heterogenous majority by a term of exclusion is inaccurate, somewhat insulting, and perhaps unjust. But it has a history. There were days when non-white represented a small minority so that exclusion in a sense made some sense. Non-whites were generally blacks; and if minority is miniscule it is essentially a rarity that can be perhaps considered negligible and legitimately left undefined. There are still today places in this country where non-whites are decidedly a minority; but this is no longer true in many other places and hardly true worldwide. The excluded minority, paradoxically, more often than not constitutes a majority
Ethnically, white of course means Caucasian; so, non-whites are non-Caucasians -- Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Polynesians, and Alaskan natives. But not all Caucasians are white. There are olive-skinned Italians, swarthy Hispanics, and brown Arabs. The New York Times reported not long ago (9 November 2003, "Nation") that Hispanics with both black and white ancestry are more and more refusing to identifying themselves as black or white but only as "other," having grown conscious of their Latino identity. Hispanics, we observe, cover a whole range of browns.
So, Caucasians may be as heterogeneous as non-Caucasians, after all. Moreover, there are whites who like to sport deep tans; they are, in fact, often darker than light-skinned African-Americans and fair-complexioned Asians but they can never be non-white. A college friend from Nigeria in my first year in America wrily commented one day: "Those white Americans . . . they discriminate against blacks but lie in the sun and try so hard to get dark." So, we have light-skinned non-whites and brown whites aside from non-classifiable Hispanics. We have been witnessing increased Hispanic immigration from the Caribbeans, Mexico, and South America in these decades; we have also been seeing not only more interracial marriages as witnessed in the social pages of daily newspapers but also their offsprings that have been christened Generation E.A., i.e., Ethnically Ambiguous, lately sought after in Madison Avenue campaigns (New York Times, 28 December 2003, "Sunday Styles"). It is obviously more and more evident that ethnic constitution is a continuum and cannot be easily divided into categories.
A new term for non-white came informally into currency some decades ago that skirted around the sense of exclusion. We, non-whites, were designated people of color, appropriating the euphemism for black and expanding its sense. So, we now have people of color, some of whom are colored people; logically, then, white people are non-color or colorless people. It is simpler, if we have to categorize, to set browns apart from whites and blacks. But in the era of ethnic continuum, it will be more and more ridiculous to impose categories and useless, too.
In the liberal arts college where I started teaching in 1966 there was besides myself only one other non-white on the faculty of some one hundred and fifty, and we were both Asians. This fairly represented the demography of the student body. Today, the college provides on its admission form the following subcategories for Non-White: Asian/Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Black, Native American, Bi-/Multiracial. This is followed by White and then Other.
Times have changed. But words do stay and continue to elude and delude us by distorting our perception of the world as it is. As one who studies visual arts, I am naturally partial to taking observed data as they come. Look, blackbirds are brown.
T. Kaori Kitao, 06.06.04