Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why I Don't Say 'African-American'

Just in time for Black (not "African-American") History Month,...
I do not use the term "African-American."  As with most things for Leonard, it breaks down to semantics.  And, per usual, we'll break this down bullet-point style.

  • Africa is not a country.  It's an entire CONTINENT.  So when you say someone is "African," yes, they might be from Kenya, Somalia, or Nigeria.  They might also be from Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Morocco, or one of the 55 recognized countries that make up the continent -- including the island of Madagascar, where we like to move it move it. 
  •  America isn't quite a country either.  This gets a little tricky, but bear with me.  The full name of this country of my origin is The United States of America.  That preposition "of" is  important.  These United States are part of America.  Given our location, we'll have to presume that we mean North America, which is a continent.  So "America" in this instance can also mean Mexico and Canada.  And if we don't use the adjective "North," we're also left with Latin America and South America.  So even though we might say we're "American," the word itself is rather ambiguous.
  • Not all black people are from the continent of Africa.  What about Haiti?  Or the Dominican Republic?  Or a thousand other places around the world where non-Caucasian people are found?  You might say, "But Leonard, all of those black people originally came from Africa."  To which I'll say, "Fine, and if we trace back far enough, we ALL came from that same region before the phenomenon of continental drift."  You'll say, "It's ridiculous to go that far back!"  And I'll say, "Exactly."  I find it ridiculous to assume to trace all black people back to Africa.
    • Did you ever stop to think that perhaps that person doesn't want or is unable to trace their heritage back that far?  Perhaps he or she would simply like to be known as a person in the here and now, as a citizen of the United States.  Speaking of which... 
  • What do they call black people in other countries?  They certainly don't say "African-American" in Ireland, do they?  Here, I'll put it in the form of a joke:
    • Q:  What do you call a black person in Great Britain?
    • A:  British.
  • That's the thing of it.  I think perhaps country of origin is more important in terms of identity than race.  Which reminds me, race is social constructI'm sure you've all heard that there could be a larger difference in DNA between a (white) blonde and a (white) brunette than between a white person and a black person.  But what about this?  Y'know in those demographic boxes we sometimes fill out (I check "white"), well "white" is a relatively new option.  A hundred years ago or so, the U.S. of A. was the Great Melting Pot, so the demographic options were things like "Irish," "Polish," "German," etc.  "White" did not exist.  That we have it now as a concept is part of why it's a social construct.  (This is, of course, a very simplified explanation of a larger concept.  This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates gives more insight into the discussion.)
I could fill this page with more anecdotes about times the term "African-American" has backfired, but here's the one that sticks out:  a student at a prominent university here applied for and was almost granted a scholarship for "African-American" students.  The university started to renege on the grant upon learning that said student was originally from Egypt.  That's not the kind of "African" they meant.

When we/you say "African-American," what we/you really mean is "black."  So why not just say that?

"But, Leonard," you'll say, "'black' sounds so crude.  Maybe even...racist," you'll whisper, hoping we're not overheard. 

"African-American" is way for people to assuage whatever guilt they might feel over "race" while still sounding "politically correct," or, as I like to call it, "pretentious."

If you're uncomfortable saying "black," ask yourself this question:  why do you feel compelled to say it (or "African-American") at all?  Is it somehow necessary to the story you're telling that we know the skin color of the person involved?  Let me put it this way:  would you still say it if the opposite were true?  Would you say, "I ran into this white guy today..."?  Probably not.

Similar to when I discuss heteronormativity with my students, I point out that we do not feel compelled to say "I was talking with my straight friend at work" because we assume the person is straight unless told otherwise.  Similarly, we might assume a person is white unless told otherwise.  Black people, gay people, are not the "Other," defined only by their non-straightness or non-whiteness.

I suggest instead that, unless it is somehow imperative to the idea you're trying to get across, you not say "black" or "white" or "gay" or "straight" at all.  Let your audience's assumptions fall where they may; that's on them.  You  might be amazed at how your speech changes.

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