Katrina and the "R" Word

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina and the "R" Word

On the heels of Eugene's recent post on the media's use of the term "refugee" to describe Hurricane Katrina evacuees comes this article from today's Washington Post:
Tyrone McKnight sleeps in a shelter. His meals come from the kindness of strangers. It's safe to call him homeless, because his house is under water. What he doesn't want you to call him, or the thousands of other New Orleans residents plucked from floodwater, is this word: refugees.

"The image I have in my mind is people in a Third World country, the babies in Africa that have all the flies and are starving to death," he says, while sitting outside Baton Rouge's convention center, where 5,000 displaced residents are being housed. "That's not me. I'm a law-abiding citizen who's working every day and paying taxes."

Which label to use when describing evacuees might seem trivial when thousands may be dead, thousands are missing, and a major city and its environs have been ravaged.

But at shelters in Louisiana and Texas, workers and volunteers have heard loud and clear from those living there that the government, the media and everyone else should call them something other than refugees.

"We ain't refugees. I'm a citizen," insists Annette Ellis, also sheltered at the convention center with her two children.

... The Washington Post stopped using the term over the weekend, unless it is in a direct quotation, says Phil Bennett, the managing editor. "We're constantly examining all sorts of labels that may or may not be accurate, like 'terrorist' or 'extremist.' This seemed to be an inaccurate label that did not fit the definition. There was also some discussion that this could be used in a pejorative sense, and we're sensitive to those concerns."

... Brian Throckmorton, copy desk chief at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, says his paper has stopped using the word in headlines and display type "to avoid provoking those who object to it, but our policy is that it is not a tarnished word and we're allowing it in body copy .... I do not agree with those who see it as an insult. In fact, I think they are insulting the world's asylum seekers by implying that it's shameful to be lumped under the word 'refugee' ... there's no shame in being poor and Third World anyway."

Talk to people long enough and it's clear that the refugee issue is mixed up with issues of race and class, as well as perceptions about New Orleans as an unruly place to live.

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