Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Was non-visible, but now I'm seen

While there's no lovely way to talk about the unlovely category "non-whites in traditionally white-dominated societies"-- it's a rump category in its nature, a category defined not by things its members have in common with one another but just by not being this other thing that is taken for granted as normal-- I have to say that I'm not at all fond of the Stats-Canada phrasing "visible minority," used over and over again in this article. It's the kind of thing that poses as being more polite than the alternative (we're not defining people with reference to whiteness by calling them nonwhite!) but that is wholly dependent on the shared understanding of what's being euphemized. What's visible about them? It's not the fact that, like most corporeal beings, they reflect light rather than transparently passing it through. It's not, e.g., their dress (Hasidim are not included, a south Asian in a business suit is). "Visible" just means "nonwhite skin color that we think we can pick out of a crowd"-- though it includes all Arabs, south Asians, and (bizarrely) Latin Americans, while excluding all Mediterranean Europeans, and I highly doubt anyone who thinks they can reliably "visibly" distinguish all of the former from all of the latter.

It's also syntactically ugly.

"If current immigration trends continue, Canada's visible minority population will continue to grow much more quickly than the non-visible minority population," Statistics Canada said, projecting they will account for one in five of the total population by 2017.

Quick: Does the "non-" in "non-visible minority population" modify "visible", meaning that the category is something like "white ethnics [e.g. Greeks, Italians, Jews-- ex hypothesi "invisible" minorities"] or does it modify the whole concept "visible minority," meaning that the category is the whole rest of the population?

I think that Stats Canada means the latter, but according to the rules of English usage with which I'm familiar I think they've said the former. Either way, having to throw around the usage "non-visible" over and over again draws yet further attention to what's going on, since non-visibility isn't actually a trait of any of the people being described.