The R Word

There is a growing protest against the use of the word "refugee" to describe people escaping the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. Some have called it racist. I disagree, but I'm going to avoid the term myself.

I think the term "refugee" is perfectly apt to the situation: people seeking refuge. My friend Jette used the term to describe her family, who have fled the dangers of suburban New Orleans. Nonetheless, she does so with difficulty. Being a trained writer and editor, she chooses the word as most accurate.

A Google search suggests the term "refugee" has been in common usage to describe hurricane victims.

Google Search Hits
Refugee Evacuee
"Hurricane Andrew" 26,800 464
"Hurricane Hugo" 4,410 55
"Hurricane Camille" 10,100 149

The word refugee, while accurate, comes with an emotional load.

Yesterday, I worked at the Convention Center, where I met people escaping from the disaster. They ranged from a small business owner to women in senior apartments to families living in public housing. I had to gather their information to enter into the computer. Not merely name and birthdate, but also whether they received public assistance, whether they needed housing, if they planned to look for a job.

All these people were struggling to find dignity in the situation. Those who owned or rented wanted me to know that. Those who received public assistance wanted me to know they wanted to look for work.

All of these people are hurting, grateful, and proud. Even though the word refugee is apropos, I suspect they may see it as a strike to their pride. Right now, that pride is the best thing they've got going for them. That's why I'm going to avoid using it.

Sept 6 update: Editor & Publisher discusses this issue and comes to a similar conclusion.


Comments have been closed for this entry.

re: The R Word

I agree completely. I think a lot people don't consider "refugee" to be a disparaging term, I certainly didn't, but we don't get to decide if a word is politically loaded, usage decides this for us.

I've tried to avoid using it recently and say "evacuee" instead.