Using the racial signifier to designate a person (“the black guy over there”) or appending it to a name (“so-and-so, the black poet”) is a dominant mode of establishing identity, especially in the absence of visual evidence such as a photograph. However, it has of late become a questionable practice, at least in
the news media, to cite someone’s race when the story is apparently “neutral.”1 One may refer to a person’s race only when the story warrants it. We have thus learnt to be uncomfortable in invoking racial identity unnecessarily, especially when recounting an unsavory narrative. Most polite and “sensitive” speakers prefer the ethnic or pseudo-technical term such as “African-American” or “Caucasian.” This is perhaps because color identities aim at a descriptive accuracy that never finds their mark. Nevertheless, it is still fairly routine to use racial signifiers as a necessary means to establish identity. Personal ads that use abbreviations such as SWF or DBM, or references to achievements such as “Arthur Ashe, the first black Wimbledon champion,” seem to indicate that these signifiers are doing some work. But what do we know, really, when we learn that someone has been designated as the “first black” to win a tennis trophy, or when the “fit, dog lover” declares herself a SWF? Are “black” and “white” in these statements on par with “tennis champion” and “single, female, dog lover,” or with Ashe and anonymous? In other words, are “black” and “white” descriptions, or are they names? Are names descriptions? That is, of course, the more fundamental question.