What’s in a name?



EL PASO – I used to work with an epidemiologist who collected phone books from all over the world. Dr. Buechley was a name fanatic. He used what he knew about the history and linguistics of surnames and his vast collection of phone books to write a computer program he called GUESS (Generally Useful Ethnic Search System). The question is why would an epidemiologist do that? Epidemiologists don’t study skin conditions (that’s epidermis and dermatologists). They study how and why diseases occur in populations the way they do (epi=around, demos=people, ology=study of).

Ethnicity is one of those labels often used as a proxy for a whole host of other variables that might protect or predispose people to certain diseases. For example, diet, religion, education, and skin color can be predictors of certain illnesses and associated with ethnicity.



People often confuse race and ethnicity. I always told my students that there were only two races (pause for effect): the human race and the Boston marathon. Both are culturally, not physically, constructed, even if people believe that race is biological. There are more differences within groups than between them. In the 1950s, the Census Bureau and others focused on a black/white world. Gradually, the Native American and Hispanic populations came into focus. As this happened, Native Americans got lumped into a non-white category and Hispanics got lumped into the white category.

Epidemiologists (especially Dr. B) were not happy with this turn of events. I remember Dr. B showing a chart to anyone who would listen that depicted rates of lung cancer for whites and non-whites. A second chart showed rates for four groups, including Indian and Hispanic. The first led to the conclusion that non-whites had higher rates. The second showed how low rates for both Indians and Hispanics were confusing the picture.

Sometimes it is better to measure the actual variable rather than use a proxy such as race or ethnicity. For example, with regard to lung cancer, smoking is one of the most predictive risk factors. Uranium mining on Indian reservations might have also been important. Darker skin pigmentation is protective of skin cancer, and diet may play an important role in colon cancer. The problem is that there are blonde Hispanics and there are Anglos in El Paso who have diets indistinguishable from Mexican Americans. And then there are some Mexicans who don’t eat chile. But it is more difficult and more expensive to investigate the real risk factors than it is to know a person’s ethnicity … even if we aren’t certain what it means. And, that’s why Dr. B wrote the computer program. It wasn’t perfect. Intermarriage can change surnames, and some names are shared among very different cultures.

There is a double-edged truth about names. If something is not in our environment, not in our consciousness, we don’t need a name for it. Even if there is a name for it, we don’t need to know. Think about snow. How many words do the Eskimos have for snow? They need those names. We don’t. That’s one edge. People and groups that have the most power get to pick the names, the labels, and often they are not even conscious of doing so. Think about your e-mail address. If you live in Mexico or another country you have a country code; if you live in the U.S. there is no country code. Power often works that way, invisible to those who have it. So the second edge is that those with the most power don’t have a name at all. In between is a contested area where people try to get the best name they can.

These currents came together as the United States became visibly and politically more multicultural. Big fights emerged over names in several groups. Papagos became Tohono O’odam. After finally putting the label Negro to rest, several Blacks decided they didn’t like the African American label, saying they had no connection to or knowledge of Africa.

But the biggest fights of all occurred among Spanish speaking groups, where there was tension between an umbrella term that would be acceptable to all groups and convey additional political power, and a nationalistic impulse that also correctly acknowledged the differences between persons whose cultural ties were to Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the three largest population groups in the U.S. There was also tension between the hyphenated designations, distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, and links between names and political movements and history.

Eventually, the umbrella term Hispanic won out among governmental agencies and most groups, with Latino running a close second. East and West coast Spanish speakers prefer the term Latino; it seems to have acquired a more activist connotation. The term Chicano, however, seems too politically charged to serve as an umbrella term and is not historically relevant to Spanish speakers from Cuba or Puerto Rico. Additionally, it conveys an indigenous admixture to European bloodlines that is objectionable to some.

The arguments about names is not over, will probably never be over. Until people are called what they prefer to be called, there will be trouble. What people will prefer will also change over time. What if, as some have articulated, they don’t want a special name and they don’t want a special month to celebrate their culture; they just want to be Americans. Do Anglos ever think about having an Anglo History Month or an Anglo Heritage Month? Of course not. But, there was a time in our history when the Irish need not apply.

Until we can’t predict who will be rich, who will live in what part of town, who will be in prison, who the banks won’t loan money to, who might have trouble voting, then we will need some way to identify racism and segregation at work. And there will always be epidemiologists looking for clues about who gets certain diseases and why.

4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Still another of Dr. Howard’s enjoyable essays with a provocative point of view.


    But this independent voter must take exception to your conclusion that “we will need some way to identify racism and segregation at work.”

    It seems to me that the “need” has been amply fulfilled: All one needs to do is listen to the Republican candidates for president!


  2. I am a human being, I wish everyone treats me like one, and I wish to treat every person as an unique and marvelous human being too.

  3. Dear Saradiana.

    You just posted one of the most lovely, most profound, and sweetest comments I’ve ever read here.

    One that just made my eyes mist up.

  4. Jews are not the oppressor.Blacks are not the oppressor.Whites are not the oppressor.Latinos are not the oppressor.

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