Judge W. G. Boshoff: "But now why do you refer to you people as 'blacks'? Why not 'brown people'? I mean, you people are more brown than black."
Steven Biko: "In the same way as I think white people are more pink and yellow and pale than white."
(1976 trial of Steven Biko)
On a brisk fall afternoon in 2005, my fifth-grade daughter came home from school rather sad and closed off. I sensed something was wrong. I asked her what the problem was. She told me that another girl at school was "bothering" her.
My daughter's grammar school was 99-percent Caucasian and in one of the top public-school districts in New Jersey. That is why we'd moved to the neighborhood, because it had some of the best K-12 schools in the state.
So I decided to ask my child a rhetorical but racist-borne question: "So what color was the little girl who gave you a hard time?"
My daughter's face contorted as she stared straight ahead, trying to figure out exactly what color her little antagonist was. She then blurted out a statement that sounded more like a question: "Pink?"
I was about to say, "Was she white?" but fortunately I stopped as I realized that I was about to corrupt a rather pristine mind into behaving like so many other adult minds that have accepted the social construct that "white" people and "black" people actually do exist. They do not exist.
I realized that, as a journalist, I was living a lie on a daily basis, and so were all my colleagues. We were adhering to the social demands that referred to people as "black" and "white" without giving the act a second thought. Just where are the planet's "black" and "white" nations? From where do these people come? I am not the color of my black wallet, and I have never met a person the same color as a white piece of paper.
The logical extension of this notion of "black" and "white" people would be "yellow" people, and "red" and "blue" people, but they do not exist either. Why the focus on "black" and "white" people? What about the Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Native Americans and so forth? Why not call them "black" or "white"?
Those groups and other groups do not accept being called "black" or "white" because the terms eliminate important aspects of their culture and seeks to homogenize them into a template fit for discrimination. African Americans and Irish Americans should not be referred to as "black" and "white," respectively, for the same reasons. "Black" and "white" terminology smothers a group's culture and history. As long as we are "black" and "white" Americans, we are a divided nation.
If we acknowledge that "white" and "black" people do not exist, then we will accept what really exists: African Americans, Polish Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans, Mexican Americans and the other Americans who reside outside the crude terms of "black" and "white."
Just how did the world, especially the Western world, get accustomed to such inaccurate descriptions of people? In part, it started with the man credited with being the father of modern anthropology, German professor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.
He referred to "Caucasians" as the "white" race, "Mongolians" as the "yellow" race, "Malayans" as the "brown" race, "Ethiopians" as the "black" race, and "Americans" as the "red" race. Blumenbach's research and conclusions were extensions of earlier scientific theories established in 1684 by French physician François Bernier, who also relied on physical attributes such as skin color to classify "races."
Bernier's 17th-century work apparently had an influence on the French crown. In 1685, shortly after his skin-color-based race theory was put forth, the "Code noir," or "Black Code," was initiated by France's King Louis XIV as a way of defining the rules of the slave trade in the French colonial empire. The Code noir's rules provided established regulations that plantation owners could use to punish and manage their colonial slaves.
Blumenbach's classifications based on skin color gathered supporters who were strong proponents of the international slave industry. One of the most prominent Americans to adopt the "black" description and negatively label some humans as "black" was founding father Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson's writings in Notes on the State of Virginia openly suggested the supremacy of whites: "I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that blacks ... are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind."
Some people cling to the titles "black" and "white." I admit it will be a hard habit to break for many Americans.
For hundreds of years the term "white" has meant privilege and power. Comedian Louis CK put it best in 2008 when he said, "I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that being white is clearly better. Who could even argue? If it was an option, I would re-up every year: 'Oh, yeah, I'll take white again, absolutely. I've been enjoying that. I'll stick with white, thank you.'"
Many descendants of American slaves, especially the political activists of the 1960s, see the embrace of the term "black" as a clarion call for change. The re-identification with the term "black" meant that a new identity existed for the progeny of slaves, and it was not an identity representing weakness. For them the term "black" was a far cry from King Louis XIV's Code noir or Jefferson's supposedly feeble-minded slaves. "Black" meant pride, unity and aspirations to legitimate power.
I am an African American. I claim the continent of Africa because I do not know from which present-day nation or region my ancestors come. President Obama, on the other hand, is a Kenyan American. But neither of us is "black," but we are American.
Americans should look forward to the day when the terms "black" and "white" are not preventing the public from seeing who they really are -- Peruvian Americans, Kenyan Americans, British Americans, French Americans, African Americans and many other prefix Americans. Eventually, the prefixes will become cumbersome for enlightened future generations, and we all will simply become Americans. We cannot reach that goal until we remove the transparent and divisive veil of "blacks" and "whites."
Benjamin A. Davis is a board member of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations and the Former CBS Harold Dow Visiting Professor at Florida A&M University. He is completing the book Becoming Americans.