I Dislike The Term African-American

Language is a strange animal.  String a few words together and they can evoke emotion and meaning far beyond what face value would imply.

A lot of people hate the term “African-American”.  Mostly, the people you hear railing against the term complain of political correctness run amok or some other such nonsense.  Despite their gross wrongness, I do share the anti-pc group’s distaste for the term “African-American”.  It took me a long time to be able to communicate why I dislike it so much.  I came to realize that, to me,  “African-American” has an Otherness to it.  Meaning a way to set a group of people apart from normal.  I am an “American”, you are an “African-American”.  Even the way it’s spoken implies Otherness.  It’s a very hard “African” followed by a slight pause then a soft “American” that kind of slips quietly off the tongue.  The implication is that when identifying a Black person, you know all you need to know from the first word and the second is just an additional identifier.

Another reason why I dislike the term “African-Americans” are the implications of the identities that our country (and Europeans) stole from the human beings who were brought over here as slaves.  Think about it, we have Indian-Americans and Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans.  And then there are African-Americans.  We so screwed up the continent of Africa that millions of people have lost their origin stories.  It is absolutely galling.  But it is done and nothing can change it.

My dislike for the term “African-American” has caused me to use the term “Black”.  I’m White, you’re Black, he’s Brown, she’s Yellow.  The problem is, there is certainly still an Otherness quality to it, though less so than “African-American” in my opinion.  But it’s still problematic.  It is still taking a large group of people (and a traditionally repressed people) and strips them of their individuality by reducing them to a color.

So what’s a person to do?

Well, first off, I would say that it’s almost never ok to describe an individual as African-American.  If you want to identify their nationality, they are American.  Period.  Full stop.  If you want to describe an individual, they can be a small letter color, but we really should be able to get beyond the black/white descriptions since the spectrum is so incredibly varied.  Not to mention the world is much more interesting with alabaster and ebony goddesses and creamy and mocha skin and burnt sienna Speakers of the House.

As a grouping of people, I’d propose a bit of word reversal.  Use “American-African” instead of “African-American”.  Being aware of your roots is very important, but most important is being able to recognize that you are an American citizen deserving of equal protection and equal rights and where you came from originally is of secondary importance.  The most important reason for the reversal, though, is the subtle reminder to others that use the word “American-African” that first and foremost, this person is in the same boat and not a different one.  The same would hold for American-Pakistanis or American-Indians, etc.  It may seem a little silly, but I believe word order matters.  If you’re describing anything, you tend to put the adjectives in the order of most important to least important and the listener pays greater attention to the first adjective than the second.

Yes, this is some real pie-in-the-sky thinking and yes, I fully recognized that I am an incredibly over-privileged white boy waxing philosophically about topics that I have zero practical experience with.  These are just my thoughts which may or may not be stupid.  Likely the former.  I’d be interested in what you think.

2 thoughts on “I Dislike The Term African-American

  1. Jaime

    All of the terms that use (Continent)-American robs people of their true identity. I agree with you that all of us born here or even naturalized are American, period. I understand that sometimes it is necessary to use a more generic label when it is unclear where a person is actually from like Asian, European, Middle-Eastern, African or Latino. But most people will self-identify with the country of their ancestry. I do not use or even like the generic term Latino or even Hispanic, All of my Ancestors going back at least 6 generations that I am aware of are from Puerto Rico making me Puerto Rican, not Hispanic.

  2. kristin

    I’ve noticed over the past few days at work that the American-Asians who work there trends to say things such as, “why are the cabinets so tall! I’m Asian!” (Implying of course that Asian people are short) or mixing up idioms and saying, “oh, it’s an Asian thing.” (Implying that Asians have trouble with English) I find myself wondering how much of that is self-identification and how much is due to the American minority experience and being identified as the “other” for so long. Either way, I find it an interesting phenomenon.

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