I like this short article about the linguistic differences between saying “my friend is Indian” and “my friend is an Indian.” Chelsey Luger writes about what it meant to her to be introduced at a Thanksgiving dinner with her college roommates as being “an Indian.” She didn’t like it much. (I’m not sure I completely understand or agree with her point about “an American” — what do you think?)
It reminds me of something I learned in nursing school. A patient is not a diabetic or an asthmatic. A patient is a woman with diabetes, a child with asthma. Our humanity is not defined by our qualities or categories. A person may suffer from schizophrenia, but a human being should not be reduced to his or her disease– is not a schizophrenic.
Qualities are important. Categories are useful if you’re counting or measuring (and data is important for social justice). But human beings are too complex to be identified and defined only as their most painful, obvious, difficult, characteristic. Even beauty is only one element of a person. Think of blond jokes — they make fun of an entire person (and an entire group of people) based on one identifier. It’s a short distance from these labels to the prejudice they sometimes signify.
Be careful of your language. Speak only of others as you would have them speak of you.
My favoirte book about qualities, is “The Book of Qualities” by Ruth Gendler. If you don’t know about this dear book, which I use when I teach personification in poetry classes, check it out! Here’s an image.