The term African-American is one of the worst pc terms to come into popular use. I never use it, unless someone actually says to me "I don't like being called black. Please call me African-American."

I have good reason for this. Most black people aren't actually from Africa. They were born here, right in the good old USA. So they are Americans. Not anything else. If I meet someone who moved here from Africa, I would probably say they are an African-American. But everyone else is American.

I think it's kind of sad that people seperate themselves this way. I think many blacks complain about the seperation of the races, and yet insist on calling themselves a name that completely removes them from the general population. We teach our children to be color-blind, but we force them to notice color by saying "African-American."


robwicks - I agree. You are right in saying that black leaders are responsible for the term's continued usage. None of my black friends go by African-American either... which brings up an interesting idea: From now on, don't use the term African-American. Just see if it upsets anyone. In my experience, it doesn't, but maybe other people know more sensitive blacks than i do.

Well, I actually don't think that's a great reason. We still say someone is Irish, even if their family has been in America for a long time(note, I agree with you that we shouldn't, I'm just saying we do).

However, there's a better reason not to call a black person "African-American". That is that many black people actually came from places other than Africa, mainly from the Caribbean islands. Someone from that area isn't African-American at all. It'd be like calling all white people European-American, when some of them might be from places other than Europe.

This reminds me of a television interview I saw many years ago. A reporter from one of the major US television networks (I forget which one) was interviewing black British athlete Kriss Akabusi after being a member of the 400 metres relay team that took the gold medal at the 1991 Athletics World Championships. The interviewer started off with:

"So, Kriss, what does this mean to you as an African-American?"

"I'm not American, I'm British"

"Yes, but as a British African-American ..."

"I'm not African. I'm not American. I'm British."

This went on for some time before the reporter got so flustered that she gave up and went to interview someone else. I guess more than anything else it demonstrates the potential absurdity of political correctness -- this reporter was so tied-up with the idea that the "correct" term for someone of afro-caribbean ancestry was African-American and not Black that she couldn't cope with the fact that many black people are neither African nor American.

Another example exists right here on E2: in CrazyIvan's otherwise excellent writeup under "sickle cell anemia" he claims that it affects "...1 in 400 African-Americans". Now this is true as far as it goes, but it conceals the real fact that it's an illness which affects people of an African origin no matter where they live now. One of the kids in my class at school suffered from sickle cell: he'd never been to America in his life, neither had any of his family. And I'm sure that the millions of native Africans who have also never been to the USA but also suffer from the illness would be equally astounded to hear that it only affects African-Americans.

Actually, I don't think this demonstrates anything at all about political correctness. It does demonstrate that the interviewer is dumb. What does being black have to do with the feeling one gets after winning a track event anyway? Now, I don't much care for the terms African-American or Afro-American either, but only because they aren't at all accurate as most people want to use them.

I have a friend who is from Morocco. He is now an American. He is an African-American, but he is not black. I am from America myself, Misssissippi if you want to get more specific. I've never been to Africa. I cannot trace any relative to Africa. Sure, some of my anscestors are from Africa (this is conjecture, but I challenge anyone to disprove it :)), but a lot of anthropologists will tell you that we all have that in common. I do use the term African American under some circumstances, though. If it sounds better. That's why I wrote The origin of modern African American names instead of "The origin of black American names." Purely subjectively, I thought the former had a better cadence than the latter. Perhaps it was the assonance that helped as well.


An addendum: I think people who get worked up over this are people who hang around college campuses too much, or get most information about black people from television. I have many black friends. I don't know a single one who refers to themselves or others as African American. So I strongly disagree that ". . . many blacks complain about the seperation of the races, and yet insist on calling themselves a name the completely removes them the general population." Some of the so called black leaders go for this, because separatism, and racism solidifies their power base. So if it doesn't exist, it must be manufactured. But use of the term "African American", as far as I can tell, is not widespread among black people. White people seem to go for it, though, to avoid ticking off the aforementioned black leaders and whatever mindless sheep they can con into following them into another quixotic struggle.

It is worth saying that as undesirable as "African-American" is, "black" isn't all that desirable, either. Much as Spider Robinson's cluricane said in The Callahan Touch", 'black' has long been associated with everything bad and scary, and it is wildly inaccurate at that. At least "colored" had a little class, although it's not very accurate as well. So did "Negro" for that matter. It may be derived from a word meaning 'black', but it doesn't SOUND like it to an English speaker.

Of course, on the Internet, none of it matters; for all you know I'm a furry critter from Alpha Centauri, and that suits me.

Not everyone with dark skin is "African American"; not all of them are Americans (of course!) and not all of them are Africans. More significantly, though, not everyone who is African American is necessarily black. You can't say that Nelson Mandela is African American: he isn't American. OK... so he's African then? And what about P. W. Botha? Isn't he African too? He was born there, right? I have friends who have moved to America from Africa who are not black: it does happen.

So the problem is that "African American" does not equal "of dark skin." Which perhaps is the point: to put the focus on culture rather than color. And as such it makes a certain amount of sense: there is something to referring to African American culture as a thing unto itself--as distinct from other American cultures, and as distinct from African cultures or cultures developed by black people in other parts of the world. The problem is that because of overzealousness in political correctness, and various applications of "USA=World" thinking, it has come to refer to the color and not the culture, leading to such sillinesses as "British African-American" above. So it no longer means what its components mean, and has become nothing more than a code for what they were trying to avoid in the first place. Bleah.

I guess the problem is that people insist on trying to classify folks by color. The term "African American" attempts (weakly) to stop people from doing that, and make them focus on culture instead, but people blithely co-opted the term to keep to their old habits and in many ways wound up in the same boat all over again.

On the flip side, sometimes things can get pretty silly with avoiding "black." There's nothing inherently wrong with color, and pretending you can't see what's in front of your face is silly. A friend of my father's tells of the time he asked someone if the lawyers for a case he was dealing with had been by yet. "Yes, one of them." "Which one?" "Well, the tall one, with hair like..." "Look, was it the black one or the white one??" It's a fair question, not a racist one, just asking for an easily-seen feature, but the person was so conditioned to be "color-blind" that he couldn't give the obvious helpful answer.

Lastly, things change with time, of course. I had a friend (rest her soul); she liked to think of herself as my third grandmother. She was an old shut-in I used to call and talk to, and she was of the "old school": she didn't like the fact that she couldn't find the right check-box for herself on forms: she didn't like the term "African American," she didn't like "black"; she wanted to call herself an "American Negro," a term she felt good with (though most people these days would not).

When I lived in San Francisco, I was in grade 11. That was 1967. Among the things happening was the black consciousness movement.

Growing up in Canada, the term I had used without thought, was negro. I accepted the arguments of the black leaders I saw and heard, and have used the word black ever since.

In my high school, there wasn't a large population of black students, so it seemed not to be a big issue. Coming back to Canada, to larger high schools, there were more black students. I continued using the term black; it seemed correct.

From my year in San Francisco, I believed the term person of color was not correct. I think it had something to do with South African usage, I am not sure. Yet, to my surprise, the New Democratic Party of Canada now uses that term specifically to refer to black people. It is to cover all the hues of color, except First Nations--aboriginals--whites, of course, and French-Canadians, who often prefer to be called Quebequois.

I am happy to use a term that is correct, and not considered to be racist. But I am uncomfortable when terminology reverses.

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