Browse By


While at WisCon 33 I was on one panel that wasn’t going to be a panel.  Cultural Appropriation 101 was supposed to be a workshop.  At least, that’s what Programming asked us to do.  But then we only had your normal panel-length time slot of 75 minutes to do it in.

(“We” being myself and Victor J. Raymond of the Carl Brandon Society’s Steering Committee, plus Cabell Gathman of the University of Wisconsin.)

So we talked some, we took questions from the audience some, we did a couple of exercises from the Writing the Other book I co-wrote with Cynthia Ward.  Also, we made a stab at putting together a glossary.  It’s that last thing I’d like to work on a little more now with you.

Here are some of the defnitions we used during the workshop:

RACISM – A system of advantage based on race.  Unfortunately, racism is not dead.

HONORARY WHITENESS: -I first heard of this term from linguistic anthropologist and Carl Brandon Society co-founder MJ Hardman.  If a white person likes a person of color and thinks that person of color is righteous and good, and therefor like themselves, they may accord that person of color honorary whiteness.  This is usually done unconsciously.

PAWS: -As in the paws given out in the course of the children’s show “Blue’s Clues.”  Somebody who’s extraordinarily clueful about cultural and racial issues has four paws.  Four is the max.

COOKIE – A very public reward for behaving commendably in regards to racial or cultural issues.  Often, seeking said cookie is the secret motivation for such behavior.  (Note: cookies are the imaginary and parodic equivalent of paws; paws are often awarded without the recipient ever knowing they have received them.)

CLUEFULNESS – Of a certain level of empathy and understanding when it comes to the situations of those of a nondominant cultural background, race, etc.  Applied to those of the correspondingly dominant background.  Many of my white friends exhibit a high degree of cluefulness.

P.O.S.E.E. – An acronym of my invention, standing for Person of Southern European Extraction.  Some P.O.S.E.E.s argue that they are not white.

P.O.N.E.E. – My companion acronym, standing for Person of Northern European Extraction.  The whitest of the white; John Aegard is my little P.O.N.E.E.

THE UNMARKED STATE – Posessing characteristics which are seen as “normal,” and thus not worth being mentioned.  In this society, at this time, this includes being white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, affluent, and with certain physical abilities.  Just about everyone deviates from the unmarked state in one way or another, though some ways are deemed important and others are not.

Here are a few terms that could use definitions.  Try to be smart and nice.





And I’m sure there must be others.

41 thoughts on “Glossophilia”

  1. Tanya D says:

    If I can humbly offer two suggestions? These are what I see these terms to mean, and if I’m off the mark, I’ll own up to my own lack of knowledge.

    PEOPLE OF COLOR: The very simple definition that comes to mind is -Any person who is not white/of European descent/has no blood ties to any of the peoples of African/Asian/Spanish/etc. This is a simple definition, but it’s what pops in my head. Those people who are mixed are counted as people of color.

    MAGICAL NEGRO: A POC who seems to exist just teach a heartwarming/ethical lesson to the protagonist of a film/movie/play that they should know anyway. The magical negro is the walking embodiment of human values that the (usually) white protagonist seems to lack until they get to know the magical negro as a real person, and sees in them what they should have known all along. See Bagger Vance, Green Mile for examples

  2. Jonquil says:

    Taking a trait of another race or culture and fantasizing about it, then substituting your fantasy (often sexual) for the experienced reality of that trait. The classic example is the Western conception of the harem, which has very little to do with the hareem; another is the various sexual stereotypes held about Asian women.

  3. Vitamin A says:

    Yay, I love having a handy reference list for stuff like this.

    Here’s an attempt: Magical Negro – A trope in literature and popular cultural that stereotypes a secondary black character as unrealistically “good,” often possessing supernatural or mystical qualities, whose existence inevitably serves the interests of white protagonists.

    Er. Feel free to edit this down to something elegant. Concise definitions are hard for this wordy motormouth.

    Also…would you consider adding cis to the definition of the unmarked state?

  4. Jonquil says:

    A really important part of the MAGIC NEGRO trope is that he generally dies in the service of the white protagonist’s spiritual growth.

  5. Godheval says:

    I don’t know if I buy that there is such a thing as “Honorary Whiteness”.

    At best maybe there’s “honorary neutrality”, where race is temporarily not seen by the white person in question. However it only takes a certain situation for that white person to be reminded that their friend/associate is NOT like them.

    Whiteness is more permanent.

    People of Color – those who are not white, either because they could never be by virtue of ethnicity, or because they have renounced whiteness and the associated privilege.

    (This means that even people of visible European descent can be honorary people of color.)

  6. Loligo says:

    EXOTICIZING is rooted in ambivalence. Someone from the dominant culture takes an element from a non-dominant culture or race and idealizes it — depicting it as beautiful, or charming, or exciting — while at the same time marking it as foreign and Other, denying its place in normal human experience.

  7. Jonquil says:

    It is impossible to renounce privilege. When I walk down the street, I am invisible in the way that a POC will never be. When I walk up to a policeman, my assumptions about how I’ll be treated are “this guy is here to help me” not “this guy is going to be looking for an excuse to arrest me.” When I cross the bridge into Palm Beach, Florida, the policemen aren’t going to turn me back. None of those have anything to do with *my* choices. Hence “privilege”.

    I inherently have it easier than POC; my job is to own up to it, not to claim I can renounce it.

  8. Diatryma says:

    Person of Color: someone who identifies* as a member of a group which is not privileged in society for reasons correlated to ancestry; conveniently enough, this historically often means being darker in some aspect of appearance. Which is the worst definition ever, but in some places, ‘white’ means ‘not indigenous’, and the white people would be people of color if they came to the States.

    *meaning I do not get to define other people as POC or not POC, and I’m not sure how else to say it.

  9. Jonquil says:

    An example of privilege I cannot renounce: Nobody is *ever* going to ask to touch my hair (except my husband).

  10. GallingGalla says:

    to the characteristics of the unmarked state, i would add cis (cissexual / cisgender).

  11. Momsomniac says:

    Hmm, on the POC definition, I am not sure on the inclusion of all of us mixed folks (though yes, I know we are ALL mixed – ultimately). While I am technically of mixed white/idigenous ancestry, it has ONLY occasionally effected how people see me.

    Most of the time I am perceived as white. So it’s a shock to me when I am perceived as “not white” and not the norm for me. AND the assumption is almost ALWAYS inaccurately that I am Hispanic. While I might be what I have heard defined as an “under-cover” or “covert” POC, and while my priviledge is tempered by my history of poverty, I certainly don’t face the same societal attitudes that most POC do.

    So, defining POC, well, I can’t, but I am not sure that inclusion of folks like me is appropriate. Certainly my heritage effects things for me SOMETIMES, but it’s not the same as if it happened ALL THE TIME.

    As for cluefulness and “paws”, I love love love the Blues Clues origin! When I was looking for things I was OK with my sons watching, Blues Clues was such a happy find!

    I am enjoying Nisi’s writing style here. I have to go find some books!

  12. Bindicated says:

    Jonquil: to your definition of EXOTICIZING, I would add something about how it strips the humanity from the exoticized PoC, boiling his/her entire individual nature down to a particular characteristic that the entire race or ethnic group is supposed to share. I feel like the stripping of humanity (or ignoring the humanity, if that’s a better wording) is a key part of the dynamic.

  13. Nisi Shawl says:

    Thanks, you all. Let’s see now….

    Tanya D., did you really mean “has no blood ties to any of the peoples of African/Asian” and so on? Or “has blood ties?”

    Magical Negro could be something like: A magically powerful yet completely subservient character who dies in the service of a protagonist of the unmarked state. Nnedi Okorafor’s story “The Magical Negro” in Dark Matter II is da bomb. (I myself have tried to write a “Magical Honky” story a couple times now, and have so far not been able to pull it off. But I think I come close in “Something More,” which I’m mailing to F&SF today.)

    Godheval, I have heard with interest about a movement of white people who deny whiteness. I think Jonquil is right, in that whites are often accorded privilege without their participation or control. So rejecting the privilege can’t be totally successful. But it is a cool idea, and sort of reminds me of Steve Martin’s reaction in “The Jerk” when he’s told by developers that they’re trying to keep “the eggplants” out of his housing estate. He goes all Kung Fu on them, because he was raised to believe he was black. And of course many people who self-identify as poc read to most casual observers as white (Hello, Toby Buckell!)

    Speaking of people of color, I found during discussions on the CBS list serve that this is a primarily USian term, or at least one used primarily in the Western Hemisphere. It was more or less meaningless to European subscribers.

    Finally, GallingGalla, I would maybe add “cis” to the unmarked state if I knew what it was. Can you please define it for me?

    1. Josh says:

      Does the Magical Negro have to die? Or can it just be a magically powerful character with no life or desire except for the ingenuity, altruism, what-have-you that goes into helping the white hero?

      If the latter, there’s many analogous characters taken from other minorities. The sexless gay superheroes in To Wong Foo. Mr Riah in Our Mutual Friend. The Lone Ranger and Toronto? Maybe even the Magical Jew who’s played by an Indian guy in Schindler’s List?

  14. Tanya D says:

    Hi Nisi,

    I meant has blood ties. Corrected below:

    PEOPLE OF COLOR: The very simple definition that comes to mind is -Any person who is not white/of European descent/and has blood ties to any of the peoples of African/Asian/Spanish/etc. This is a simple definition, but it’s what pops in my head. Those people who are mixed are counted as people of color in my book.

  15. Chris says:

    I have a slightly more nuanced approach to People of Color:

    Any person not identified by society at large as white and given the same rights and status.

    Caveat #1 – this doesn’t really properly address the issues of passing and the history and trauma behind that, but it does address both the fact that for some groups or people Whiteness has been granted (Irish, Italians in the US) or can be conditional (Jews) and ties into the issue of Honorary Whiteness.

    It also puts focus on the fact that the issue of racism is on a social level- when people ask me about being half-white but identifying as Asian, I have to remind them that if I went missing, the police wouldn’t be out looking for a “half white guy”, just as much as it’s not historic that we elected a “half white” President in the US.

    Though I don’t feel that’s a solid definitive definition, feel free to mine it for whatever you do end up with.

  16. GallingGalla says:

    Nisi: at its simplest, cissexual means “not transsexual” and cisgender means “not transgender”.

    cissexual basically means that one’s internal sense of gender is the same as the sex assigned to them by others at birth. cisgender is more a social definition that indicates one’s willingness to follow social roles that are typically associated with one’s assigned sex.

    being cissexual and cisgender are considered the default in society, and being transsexual and/or transgender are suppressed / punished to greater or lesser degrees, up to and including being killed.

    a more detailed explanation is at Monster’s Creed.

  17. Angie says:

    To the other comments about the Magical Negro, I’d add that he has no significant goals or interests of his own, but rather prioritizes the goals and interests of the white protagonist.


  18. Betty says:

    I tend to use COOKIE to be the reward not for behaving commendably, that is, if one actually behaved in a manner that deserves to be commended, but rather it is the reward for failing to be a huge asshole: “I never followed you around the store to see if you stole stuff, where’s my cookie!?” COOKIE is what you get when you demand the reward for doing literally the least you could do.

  19. Godheval says:

    Nisi and Jonquil:

    Ah, of course there is no helping how others will regard or treat us, but I think that a conscious effort to renounce privilege is at least a worthwhile effort. I look at people like Noel Ignatiev and Tim Wise and think they are at least on the right track.

    Renouncing privilege may not be so much about changing how others see you or treat you – which as Jonquil says is impossible – as it is about finding common ideological ground with people of color.

    I had a brief conversation with Tim Wise with regards to his Wikipedia article, about whether to label him “white”, which I thought not to do given his stance, but he insisted on being labeled as white, I think to acknowledge his privilege.

    I need to give this some more thought.

  20. Godheval says:

    Perhaps I should mention that I am for the abolition of the very concept of race – not pushing for “colorblindness”, since it’s a dangerous delusion – but reconceptualizing our differences using more legitimate criteria.

    For example, I think “blackness” is as dangerous for “black” people as “whiteness” is for everyone who is not white.

  21. Godheval says:

    Sorry to triple post, but I realized my mistake.

    In my mind whiteness and privilege are so closely intertwined as to be synonyms. Privilege of course, is bigger than whiteness, as it includes male privilege an straight privilege. But whiteness has no purpose or meaning outside of privilege.

    So what I meant earlier was renouncing whiteness, not renouncing privilege. This includes acknowledging privilege, rejecting it, and speaking out against it.

  22. Julie Andrews says:

    At the panel, you also mentioned age and religion under Unmarked State.

    I wasn’t sure if you were being comprehensive in your list in this post or just giving examples. But since someone talked about adding cisgender, I thought I’d toss those two (back) in.

  23. Momsomniac says:

    Oh, I like what Chris said. Things do get nuanced.

    My father surprised me awhile back by saying “Don’t waste all that effort I put into passing” when he found out I was marking two “race” boxes on official forms. This surprised me. He is from the South, but I had never heard this term applied to anyone who was not of Black heritage.

    I should point out that I am NOT a young person, so my father isn’t either, so his take on this well, hard to express, but I think that’s relevant.

    And yes, once people know one is “not technically white” that effects things too – I was asked IN A MEETING at work yesterday if I knew any kind of a ritual dance to help make something happen. I answered with my voice as dead as I could make it, “No, but THANK YOU you for asking.” (I think it was clear that the word I really meant was not “thank”).

    That said, my ethnicity isn’t likely to effect how I am treated in a store or an interview. Honestly, I suspect my height (or lack thereof) has more impact on those things than my skin.

    On the definitions, essentialism – maybe “The erroneous but socially accepted belief that one’s sex or skin color pre-determine behavior”?

  24. posee bitch says:

    I’m sure we all
    agree that race is a cultural construct.
    And that currently “white” is considered culturally the “norm” in the U.S.
    and everyone who is “othered” is not “white”.

    So, the fact that I am asked DAILY what my ethnicity is:
    What are you? What is your mix? Where your from? Are you_____(fill in the blank with any number of ethnic/racial categories I can pass for)?

    But, alas,
    I am according to you
    I guess I should just throw out my t-shirt that says, “of questionable ethnicity”
    and replace it with one that says “POSEE” and therefore answers the question before it’s asked, in the way a “black” woman tells me is OK.

    Fuck my ancestors and how much closer their island was to Africa than to Europe. Fuck what I actually look like, cause this post has identified me.
    thank you soooo much.
    thanks, I hope this catches on : )

    yours truly,
    posee bitch

  25. Nisi Shawl says:

    GallingGalla, thank you, and I will add that to the definition. A handy way of saying what has in the past been called “normative,” w/o the value judgements implied in that latter word.

    Betty, you are right, and that is closer to the usage I’m familiar with, too. I will edit that in.

    Chris, I like your def very much.

    Godheval, I received an email from MJ, the one who first defined the term “honorary whiteness” for me. I wanted her to post a comment, but she’s not up for doing that. So I’m quoting what she wrote me about your response:

    “‘Honorary neutrality’ is not possible because in our system there IS no ‘neutral’. Belonging to a ‘race’ is obligatory, just as belonging to a ‘sex’ is, among other things. ‘Honorary’ is neither permanent nor everywhere; it may be temporary and local. From the white person it is always believed to be a compliment. It is, of course, racist, profoundly, denying even the possibility of the ‘other’ having good qualities. (This works in a sexist fashion as well; how often is ‘you think like a man’ said to a woman as a compliment! As though women could not think. Honorary manhood is also functional; back in the early 70s when I wanted to buy a house I was told that it was only possible with the signature of a father, husband, or brother or I could go to court and be declared an ‘honorary man’. )

    “An observation from a student: ‘A close friend of mine in high school was black. When speaking of him to newcomers or just in casual conversation people would often say “Jaie is not really black – he is a white guy trapped in a black man’s body.”‘ (courtesy Elizabeth Williams)”

  26. Godheval says:

    I think MJ and I may have different concepts of neutrality. What I meant by neutrality was that status afforded white people by default – to be seen for one’s merits, one’s individuality, rather than one’s race. Privilege stacked on top of this neutrality then forms what we know as “whiteness”.

    So what I’m saying is that no person of color can become an “honorary white person” – situations of passing notwithstanding – because while they may be regarded individually for their merits, they will never be the beneficiaries of white privilege.

    And because whiteness is nothing without privilege, I do not think honorary whiteness works as a concept, at least not for people of color.

    The status afforded the Irish, the Italians, the Poles and others who were originally treated as second class citizens by the reigning Anglo-Americans – that could be considered an honorary whiteness; a temporary status until they were able to enroll fully into the institution.

  27. Thejudge says:

    Hmmm, let me have a go at it;

    People of color; People of partial or mixed African ancestry who reject the term “black” and absolutely hate to hear the term African American.

    Magic Negro; A mythical character created by white people in the midst of working around or witnessing a black professional for the first time. Because the said person of color is so closely watched and followed, they tend to be perfectionist which makes it difficult to find fault.

    Exoticizing; Usually occurs as a result of being miraculously visible in a white world. Suddenly, you are stared at by multiple onlookers wherever you go, and you have to be mixed if they find you attractive. People must touch your skin to see if it is hard. They must touch your hair or they are shocked that you can grow hair. They wonder if you have bleached your skin, had collagen injections or cheekbone implants. All because they are now forced to look at someone different.

    Honorary white: The object of the words, “when I look at you, I don’t see a black person, I see a human being.” You are “attractive” “intelligent” and “articulate.” You laugh when they tell off color jokes and never complain when they treat you like dirt. These are the people, white people try to keep sequestered from other blacks in their towns, especially in the south. They invite you to their churches and tell you not to hang around “so and so” who happens to be black because they are afraid of the influence.

  28. Godheval says:

    Judge, your definition of POC doesn’t work because it is too exclusive. There are other groups, not of immediate African ancestry (I say immediate with the understanding that everyone can trace their roots back to Africa), who have also have been affected by second-class citizenship, disenfranchisement, and the rest. While each group has their own particular experiences, I’d like to think that we can find common ground and ideological unity under the banner “people of color”.

  29. Thejudge says:

    In some circles it is exclusive. However, in most cases people with an identifiable ethnicity such as Asians or Latino’s are referred to as such. It is usually used when people don’t want to offend by calling someone ambiguous looking or when they don’t know if the person would be offended by Black or African American. There are many people who are nonwhite and have suffered second class citizenship. Although most tend to meld into “honorary white” status very easy. Especially when they have positive stereotypes. Person of color is a rearrangement back to “colored” which came way before Negro, Black or African American.

  30. Original Lee says:

    Person of color: Anyone who is, to the casual observer, not white. Often used in the plural to indicate that one is talking about a group of people not privileged by skin color.

    Honorary white person: A POC who has earned social status equivalent to white privilege within a particular group by virtue of achieving the unmarked state relative to normative behavior for the privileged members of the group, in the opinion of individual members of the group. (Bother, this reads more involutedly than I intended.)

  31. Zahra says:

    Hmm…As a person of pallor, I feel weird offering a definition for person of color, but here goes:

    People of color: An umbrella term raised in the face of the rain of coloniaism and discrimination. A self-claimed identity that brings together people from the many cultures tired of being spat on by clouds in the shape of European and American hegemonic power. (Said rain may be historic, direct, economic, ongoing, and unpredictable.) There are places that claim to sell it, but it can most likely be found in the home you grew up in with other protective gear. Like many umbrellas, it might not be big enough or the right shape, but it requires standing together to use it well.

    Person of color (definition for white people only): Someone who knows more than you do about racism.

    The colonialism & discrimination piece feels important to me. I think the term should include people of Turkish, Iranian, & Arab descent whose status as “minorities” or “white” is sometimes debated in the US but who are facing increasing discrimination; the experience of colonialization seems a big commonality. At the same time, I don’t think the term should be imposed on, say, someone from Cuba or Argentina who belongs entirely to and identifies strongly with a colonizing culture.

    1. Thejudge says:

      “People of color: An umbrella term raised in the face of the rain of coloniaism and discrimination. A self-claimed identity that brings together people from the many cultures tired of being spat on by clouds in the shape of European and American hegemonic power. (Said rain may be historic, direct, economic, ongoing, and unpredictable.) There are places that claim to sell it, but it can most likely be found in the home you grew up in with other protective gear. Like many umbrellas, it might not be big enough or the right shape, but it requires standing together to use it well”

      Wow, Zahra…that was hot! I like that. I wish I would have thought of it myself.

  32. Godheval says:

    Judge, I don’t think you understand what I and the rest of the people here are saying. “People of color” is not some rearrangement of “colored people”. The term is being used to describe anyone who is not white. When I said “too exclusive”, I meant that you were using it only with regards to African-Americans, and that’s your mistake. The term is broader than that – at least now, and how the people here are using it.

    @Zahra: Person of pallor – that’s funny.

    1. Thejudge says:

      No, I understand what many of you would like to believe about the term. Trust me, I do. However, life experience with this term has taught me that although, we would love to sing KUMBAYA and have a great umbrella to place all of the oppressed people of color under, in reality it doesn’t stand. Outside of Academia, Asians are granted “honorary whiteness” as well as Arabs, and many Hispanics.
      When you are in an office and someone braces themselves, bats their eyes and describes the new employee as a “woman of color” expect the color to belong to a black person. In other words, they are preparing you so that you won’t say or do anything stupid. People don’t go out of their way to describe other races. Antiracists love to make the term inclusive as a way of creating awareness of racism beyond black and white.
      In most cases, Asians, Hispanics, and others love to assimilate with the white majority and only recognize themselves as a POC, when -hits the fan. Then all of a sudden, they have a color. Yet, I don’t buy it.
      When I say person of color, I mean a person that can’t blend in, or hide behind model minority stereotypes.

  33. Godheval says:

    @Original Lee:

    I maintain that there is no equivalent to white privilege. Which, as I said earlier, is why I do not think the term honorary whiteness works for anyone who can’t also be considered actually white, and permanently.

  34. Chris says:

    Honorary Whiteness:

    When a white social circle is willing to exercise their privilege on behalf of a POC, in exchange for upholding the norms of whiteness.

    Any act on the part of the POC that threatens the status quo of white supremacy, even in single, interpersonal interactions, often results in withdrawing benefits along with harsh reprisals.

    The reward/punishment conditioning of this situation often causes the “Honorary White” POC to be exceedingly fervent in protecting the situation, akin to Stockholm Syndrome or abuse victims protecting the abusers.

  35. Bindicated says:

    POSEE bitch: Yeah, the POSEE situation can be ethnically complicated, but I think that Nisi recognized that by distinguishing PONEE from POSEE. She didn’t say that she thought all POSEEs are white, but only that some “try to argue that they are not.” My general impression from this blog is that everyone here is encouraged to define their ethnic and racial identity for themselves.

    I’m POSEE; my dad has tan colored skin, curly black hair, and dark eyes. People often ask about his ethnicity in exactly the way you described. I know it can be wearing. The problem that I’ve observed from growing up in the US among people of Italian and Sicilian descent, is that most of them have fought hard to be counted as “white” and do not embrace any connection to Africa, and have benefitted societally from doing so. So I can sympathize with members of the black community who feel suspicious of POSEEs who don’t self-identify as white. Now, I don’t say that as any kind of comment on your ethnicity or community of origin, because I don’t know anything about it and it’s 100% not my business. I say it to explain my own experience with this dynamic because it’s close to home for me also.

    1. Thejudge says:

      Outstanding commentary on the POSEE situation.I live in Italy and see the whole dynamic with my own eyes. It’s very strange. I live in Tuscany. Many of the people here see the people in the south as Mixed, and love to point out the origins of those, in the south. Yet, they all are mixed with a little bit of everything. One of the most interesting things I have ever heard was when my POSEE husband said that the Gotti’s were either Brazillian or Mixed with African. I insisted that they were indeed Italian and he said,”uh, uh, uh,(finger waving)e no Italiani!

  36. David says:

    I am a little surprised that a definition was suggested for the unmarked state but no posts above seems to have mentioned people of color in relation to it.

    Would a definition of poc work as:
    “PEOPLE OF COLOR – Persons whose perceived ethnicity or phenotype places them outside of the unmarked state”?

    for your scrolling convinience, the definition of unmarked state is quoted below.

    “THE UNMARKED STATE – Posessing characteristics which are seen as “normal,” and thus not worth being mentioned. In this society, at this time, this includes being white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, affluent, and with certain physical abilities. Just about everyone deviates from the unmarked state in one way or another, though some ways are deemed important and others are not.”

    1. karinova says:

      D’oh! (slaps forehead)
      Your definition is so elegant and perfect, it’s almost embarrassing.

Comments are closed.