Robert's Virtual Soapbox

(or, The Sanctimonious Professional Leftist's Blog)
FEBRUARY 5, 2012 10:37PM

‘Black’ is the ‘new’ black?

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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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I prefer Indigenous over Native American. they were here before it was called America.

I like black as well even though it is not very nuanced. My son is from Ethiopia so he is truly an African American. I am "white" although many Africans call white people, "pink" because of their skin color.

People from Japan used to be called yellow, even though many Japanese are closer to white colored skin than Europeans and Americans.
You seriously think someone being a little culturally behind the times who uses "African American" (probably because the news still does and they believe it to be correct/polite) is the same as using "Oriental" to refer to a person from Asia (and, of course, THINGS from Asia such as rugs are still considered Oriental)?

What if it was Dikembe Mutumbo? Can we go with African American at that point?

Also, since when is using homosexual in a dyke bar gonna cause a stir?

You know who knows if you're racist, homophobic. misogynistic or an asshole?

Non-whites, gays, women and other non-assholes. Listening to a person speak, hearing about their ideas and what they believe in is useful in determining if someone is a racist. Using a single word to judge someone's thoughts or familiarity with race is niggardly.

Now, before you think me a racist, make sure you know what that word I just used means, where it came from and then examine why you believe its use is indicative of anything but a useful vocabulary.

By the way, Charleze Theron is an African American. That probably would have been one of the more useful things to mention in why black Americans prefer to be called black.

Also, it doesn't take too many side by side comparisons with black Americans and native Africans to see that black Americans might just be nearly equally white Americans if they were able to truly know their ancestry.

But, I know this so I point at Q-Tip and he states, "black is black".
Wow. You totally misconstrued my post, but hey, it inspired you to write an indignant, race-based rant of your own, didn't it? And isn't it really all about YOU?

I knew that I was walking on dangerous ground writing about race while white, and I figured that I'd get some response like yours, from a professionally, perpetually offended one who is above it all and who speaks for all members of his race.

I never asserted that one who uses the term "African-American" must be racist. I asserted that it might be a symptom. "Oriental" of course is worse than is "African-American," but are they roughly in the same ballpark? If the same person uses both of those terms, then I'd say, yeah.

Actually, most of us gay men and lesbians don't like being referred to as "homosexuals." I take it that you are not gay or lesbian -- or you'd know that.

Since you missed it, the main point of my post is that I read a news item that reported that the term "African-American" no longer is in vogue, when, to my observation, its currency fell years ago, and that I find the term to be stilted and clinical -- and yes, it smacks of political correctness, which indicates to me that often if not usually when whites use the term, it's because they're trying very hard not to be offensive, when there is nothing offensive with "black."

My post is about word usage -- specifically, "black" vs. "African-American" -- but in your apparent woundedness and outrage, you took it to the level that you felt the need to assert (correctly) that "black Americans might just be nearly equally white Americans if they were able to truly know their ancestry." I don't disagree with that assertion, but you wrote it as though it might be a point of contention, and I notice that you used "black," not "African-American"...

Of course, people are free to say "African-American" to their heart's content. I just don't like using that many syllables or sounding that clinical, so I'm sticking with "black."

Use another racist epithet like "Q-Tip" and you're deleted and banned.
P.S. Good point about Charlize Theron. You agree with me that the term "African-American" is flawed in describing race, yet you attack me anyway -- again, apparently primarily because I had the audacity to write about race while white.

You know, as a gay man I'm fine with a straight person writing about gay men. If he gets it wrong, I'll tell him.

You told me, but I didn't get it wrong.
I prefer "black", tho it's problematic, being applied to a lot of people who are shades between "black" and "white". Just to confuse things, while "Natives" or "First Nations people" or whatever use such terms formally, as when complaining about the government, informally they say "Indian". At least the ones I've heard in person or on the TV programs on the aboriginal (another term!) channels. Wish we could get past the labels...but they are handy as descriptors. I once had to meet someone at an airport and the description she gave was brown hair and brown eyes. She had to approach me, because I wasn't on the lookout for an Indian (Native variety).

All of which reminds me of the time I ran into an African-Canadian (properly labeled - he came from Ghana) whom I hadn't seen for a few years and before I knew it I had exclaimed, right out loud, "Good grief, you're turning white." I was referring to hair the way I would with a pink person, but it sounded strange. (He didn't seem to notice - in my, of course limited, experience, Africans aren't nearly as *sensitive* to possible racial missteps in speech the way Americans and West Indians are (another crazy term - considering there are lots of people of East Indian origin in the West Indies, particularly Trinidad. Not to mention the mixtures, with Chinese/Japanese thrown in).

I hope that we are working toward all of us getting along.

There are some who say that words and labels don't matter, and sure, in a metaphysical sense, they do not, or at least should not, but sociologically, they sure still do...

My rule of thumb is that you call a group by the term(s) that it wants you to use. That, to me, is the respectful thing to do.

That said, my guess is that most Native Americans don't call themselves Native Americans, but refer to themselves as members of their specific tribe.

I agree, Alaska Progressive, that "Native American" is problematic for the reason that you cite, but it's the term that I see most for that group of people. "Indigenous," however, to me isn't specific enough, as there are indigenous peoples all over the planet...

And yes, Myriad, indeed, those of us who are of mixed races, and their number is growing, can be difficult to racially categorize, as the U.S. Census has found...