A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about this. During our conversation, I used the expression 'people of colour,' because, as a Tumblr user, I assumed that this was now universally considered to be the acceptable turn of phrase when talking about people who aren't white. My friend, who is mixed race, very politely and with no aggression said that he didn't consider this to be an appropriate expression. I apologised, and the conversation continued as it did before. There was one difference, though, and that was my white-guilt was doing veritable back-flips, and I still feel sufficiently embarrassed and ashamed by the episode that I had to go and get my friend's permission before using this anecdote (Hey there!).
What's interesting about this, I think, is that it demonstrates what happens when you let a discussion about real-world problems (race, gender, sexual orientation etc.) become abstracted from the people who are actually directly affected by it. The discussion becomes rarefied, academic, becomes more about scoring points than anything else. Another example: when talking to a friend, who eventually came out as trans, about gender identity, I was quoting an article I'd read which challenged the right of an individual to decide upon their own gender identity from a 'collectivist' stand-point, thinking myself to be very clever. My friend countered this with the following: 'You shouldn't have to be able to write a Ph.D. on gender theory to justify how you identify.'
(Now I think of it, most people I know who take issue with gender-transition don't tend to have any trans friends...I wonder which way the causal link goes, there...)
My friend's frustration was entirely justified. It is one thing to pontificate about gender-transition and race-relations, and another to actually have to go through gender-transition, or find oneself the target of racial discrimination; I have never had to experience either of these things. The point I am trying to make is: there must be some level of caution and sensitivity when we are discussing these issues, because, frankly, it's right to be cautious and sensitive. There are real people behind these examples, who are the subjects of these theories, people to whom with have an ethical obligation of some kind or another. That must always be retained, even if only for the case of simple manners.
This is quite a big 'however.' We must guard against it straying to far in the other direction, that is, that we become afraid to discuss these issues for fear of stepping on someone's toes. Because there are always people who are willing to talk about these issues, which are genuinely very important, but they don't tend to be the nice guys. Ethnicity does matter, it does effect social cohesion and how societies function. Race does bring up problems. These aren't pleasant truths, but they are true all the same. But, these problems are not insurmountable by any means. There's no reason at all while different ethnic and cultural groups can't live in at least relative harmony, as long as we do confront the problems that will inevitably arise in these relationships- all human relationships bring up problems. If, however, the only people who are addressing social problems connected to the interactions between different ethnic and cultural groups are radicals of one side or the other, then only their voice is being heard, and it is a voice that tends to only utter variations of 'Send them HOME!', or blindly insist that all we want to do is 'get along,' and refuses to acknowledge that there is even a problem at all.
The triumph and curse of democracy is that it allows a plurality of sentiment and thought to be expressed. This allows us to challenge views that we disagree with, and this is a right that we must never be afraid of using. I have written before about the importance of having more than one opinion being expressed in an open society, and we must make it our duty to ensure that we are able to respond to voices that challenge what is right. Ultimately, this must be done because our words and our theories do effect the people we are discussing, the people whose lives we are debating about.
As such, though we must beware of allowing the discussion to loose its connection with the lives of real people, we must never be afraid of having the discussion, because concepts and nomenclature do matter: there has to be a connection between theoria and praxis. We must be unafraid of having difficult conversations about difficult issues, because our opponents are certainly not afraid of having these conversations, and their conclusions are not appealing...
Update: how NOT to have this conversation...(CW: racial slurs)