‘Black’ is the ‘new’ black?

The Associated Press has an odd “news” item — timed for Black History Month, apparently — that many if not most black Americans don’t like to be called “African-American.” The AP story begins:

The labels used to describe Americans of African descent mark the movement of a people from the slave house to the White House. Today, many are resisting this progression by holding on to a name from the past: “black.”

For this group — some descended from U.S. slaves, some immigrants with a separate history — “African-American” is not the sign of progress hailed when the term was popularized in the late 1980s. Instead, it’s a misleading connection to a distant culture.

The debate has waxed and waned since “African-American” went mainstream, and gained new significance after the son of a black Kenyan and a white American moved into the White House. President Barack Obama’s identity has been contested from all sides, renewing questions that have followed millions of darker Americans:

What are you? Where are you from? And how do you fit into this country?

“I prefer to be called black,” said Shawn Smith, an accountant from Houston. “How I really feel is, I’m American.”

“I don’t like ‘African-American.’ It denotes something else to me than who I am,” said Smith, whose parents are from Mississippi and North Carolina. “I can’t recall any of them telling me anything about Africa. They told me a whole lot about where they grew up in Macomb County and Shelby, N.C.”

Gibré George, an entrepreneur from Miami, started a Facebook page called “Don’t Call Me African-American” on a whim. It now has about 300 “likes.”

“We respect our African heritage, but that term is not really us,” George said. “We’re several generations down the line. If anyone were to ship us back to Africa, we’d be like fish out of water.” …

This is news? Since when did the majority of today’s black Americans prefer to be called “African-Americans”?

If “white” isn’t offensive (and it isn’t), then why would “black” be offensive? And “black” is economical — one syllable, as opposed to the seven-syllable “African-American.”

“African-American” seems too politically correct and stilted to me — its use seems overly conscious of race. “African-American,” it seems to me, is used primarily by whites who are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with blacks, just as those who are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with us gay men and lesbians call us “homosexual(s)” — a term that the vast majority of us gay men and lesbians don’t use to refer to ourselves.

But even aside from that, “African-American” a poor term to denote one’s race.

If you want to be technical, all human beings had their origin in Africa, so every American, strictly technically speaking, could be called an “African-American.”

And not all black Americans, it seems to me, consider Africa to be the place of their heritage — they could consider Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica or one of several other nations to be the place of their heritage, not entirely unlike how it’s woefully inaccurate to term all Latinos as “Mexicans,” as though Mexico were the only nation that produced Latinos.

And, as the two black individuals are quoted as having said in the AP story above, “African-American” connotes a connection to Africa that many if not most black Americans don’t really feel — any more than I feel a connection to whichever foreign land my ancestors came from (the United Kingdom, I believe, but I’m not certain of that). I don’t call myself an “Anglo-American” because I’ve never set foot in the UK and I am generations removed from it — and because “white” is one syllable versus six, and I believe in keeping it simple. (Ditto for the clinical-sounding term “Caucasian” — why use three syllables when “white” is perfectly acceptable?)

I routinely use the term “black” to refer to blacks and never have been corrected by a black person, and I generally believe in using the term that the majority of the members of a group use to refer to themselves. Thus, I say “black” and not “African-American” (and certainly not “Negro” or “colored” or another woefully outdated term), “Latino” and not the outdated “Hispanic,” “Asian” and certainly not the horribly outdated “Oriental,” and “Native American” and not “Indian” (since Native Americans are not from India and since here in the United States we have plenty of people who are from India or who are only a generation or two removed from India, and so to call Native Americans “Indians” is to confuse them with actual Indians).

Like the use of “homosexual,” though, the use of such terms as “African-American” and “Oriental” is useful in identifying bigots — or if not outright bigots, individuals who obviously aren’t very familiar with the group of people they’re referring to, or they’d be using the term that the group uses to refer to itself.

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