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September 11, 2005

Racism, Nationalism and the 'Refugees' Debate

It's time we weighed in on the discussion surrounding what term should be applied to survivors of Hurricane Katrina (and the debacle surrounding it) who have lost their homes and are indefinitely displaced. Jesse Jackson, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other civil rights advocates have criticised the media and others for using the term "refugees," suggesting that it implies a foreign "other" and therefore demeans the largely African-American group the term is currently being used to describe.

"It is racist to call American citizens 'refugees'," said Jackson when he visited the Houston Astrodome on Monday.

Representative Diane Watson (D-CA) weighed in similarly: "'Refugee' calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of. These are American citizens," she said.

Watson is technically correct, but we aren't buying it.

Racism needs to be challenged anywhere it rears its head -- on that we agree with critics of the "refugees" term. We also agree, unlike those who would dismiss this as mere "semantics" discussion, that language is important and must be used carefully by the media so as not to perpetuate stereotypes and oppressions.

But nationalism is no substitute for racism; it is equally objectionable. The term "refugees" should be applied to Americans just the way it has been applied to Sudanese, Palestinians, Haitians and so many others over the years. People who believe the term is undignified should be asked what their bias is against refugees in these other places. People who believe the term should not be applied to Americans should be asked what puts US citizens above the term.

If anything, we believe the existence of American refugees should remind us to respect and help foreign refugees -- people who, like those who fled the Gulf Coast, have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to seek help and start their lives anew. Those who believe refugee is a dirty word need to reexamine their own prejudices, not point fingers at others.

As a technical note, we realize most dictionary and encyclopedia definitions of "refugee" dictate that to acquire such status one must be the victim of political or social turmoil and must cross international boundaries. To that we say it is time for the dictionaries and encyclopedias to catch up with reality.

There is simply no better term to describe people forced from their homes who seek refuge elsewhere, whether within their own country or beyond its borders.

We have chosen to call the survivors of Hurricane Katrina "refugees" or "internal refugees" on our pages because we have found no other term that conveys the severity of the situation. The popular recommendation of "evacuees" is ridiculous. That describes a separate, if overlapping, state of being, and it implies a very temporary status. Unfortunately, many of those evacuated from New Orleans and other areas hit by Katrina will be gone a very long time, if not permanently.

They are refugees, plain and simple.

Comments...

tharanagarajan: Racism, Nationalism and the 'Refugees' Debate

Actually, there is another term that is more appropriate and that is used widely: internally displaced persons. I fully agree that the term refugee connotates an "otherness" that is disrespectful to those who have not crossed internationally borders. I have often read the term 'internally displaced persons' to refer to those who have to leave their homes due to political unrest or insecurity but who do not leave their countries.

odahi: Racism, Nationalism and the 'Refugees' Debate

I'm so glad someone finally wrote about this. By the way, if anyone noticed, the media was more than happy to oblige these ridiculous requests and immediately switch to using 'evacuees'.

stiles138: Racism, Nationalism and the 'Refugees' Debate

I agree that refugee is not a dirty word. However, those who fled the Garden District are not refugees from anything but million dollar mansions. Refugees? Those people?

Georgy Vladimirov: Racism, Nationalism and the 'Refugees' Debate

Thank you, TNS! As an independent news organization you should keep your eye focused clearly on language sanitation. It is critical not to allow terms like "collateral damage", "body count" or "hexaform rotatable surface compressoin unit" be used to mask the truth. (the last term was used by the Pentagon when they accounted for regular steel nuts while listing them at more than $2,000 each!)

Brian Dominick: 'Otherness'

Tharangarajan: You said:

I fully agree that the term refugee connotates an "otherness" that is disrespectful to those who have not crossed internationally borders.

So I ask you what my commentary suggested should be asked of anyone who makes such a claim: what is wrong with "others" that makes comparing Americans to "them" so "disrespectful"? Should not instead this be a lesson for us to increase our respect for those "others" who, it turns out, aren't so different from us "Americans"?


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.