Please Don’t Call Me ‘African-American’

I’m “black” — and it still sounds beautiful to me.

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Photo: flickr

I did something this morning that I never do in text communication. I corrected someone’s spelling.

It wasn’t my best moment, but in my defense, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. As I pondered whether it was really necessary to point out that there is no “O” in “lethargic,” I thought back to a 2013 Jetstar journey from Melbourne to Bangkok. Corrections was a recurring in-flight-entertainment theme, via the 2012 Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen film The Guilt Trip and a 2011 episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Both comedy selections featured PC sons correcting mothers of a certain age who were given to using outdated terms to describe people belonging to certain minority groups. I can’t fault Leonard’s objections to Sheldon’s mom’s racism-with-a-smile (delivered as only the great Emmy-winning actress Laurie Metcalf can do it), but I’m not so sure that Barbra Streisand’s endearing Jewish mother Joyce in The Guilt Trip technically misspoke when she said “Oriental” instead of “Asian.”

I never got the memo that, as Rogen’s baffled character Andy pointed out to his mom, it’s no longer okay to use “Oriental.” One day it was perfectly acceptable, and the next everyone was saying “Asian.” I can’t recall anyone ever explaining to me why “Oriental” suddenly became a bad word, but it’s been so long since I’ve regularly heard the term, it actually disarms me slightly whenever anyone utters it.

Not that I have a problem with “Oriental.” I don’t see it as being any more problematic than “Asian.” Generally used as a term to categorize people descended from a certain part of the world with certain physical characteristics as well as to categorize a handful of geographical cuisines, “Asian” is somewhat misleading. In its popular usage, the crux of “Asian” is the shape of one’s eyes, or the eye shape of the people doing the cooking, which would exclude Asian peoples and food from India, Pakistan, the Middle East, the Anatolian portion of Turkey, and a number of other countries that are included on the continent adjacent to Europe.

On the other side of the world in the U.S., we now say “Native American” instead of “Indian” to describe descendants of the peoples who settled on the North and South American continents before Europeans did, freeing up “Indian” exclusively for Asians from India. But get a load of this: Indian food is actually “Asian” food, too. Of course, Joyce didn’t correct Andy and society’s misuse of “Asian,” because, well, that would have ruined the joke.

“Black” don’t crack

I don’t recall seeing any black people in The Guilt Trip, and there weren’t many on The Big Bang Theory, but I don’t have to wonder where Leonard and Andy would have stood on the subject of “African-American” vs. “Black.” I’m old enough to remember when “black” fell out of favor (after being used for decades in lieu of “negro,” which itself was once a step up from “n****r”), and although its PC successor has been in use for more than 20 years, I still can’t bring myself to get used to “African-American,” much less use it.

It’s not that I have a problem with politically correct language. When it accurately describes what it’s referring to (“physically challenged” instead of handicapped, “mentally challenged” instead of “retarded,” “hearing impaired” instead of “deaf,” “visually impaired” instead of blind, “deceased” instead of “dead”), the terms currently in circulation often sound more elegant than the ones they replaced.

“N****r” is unacceptable, and “negro,” though preferable, might be too close to “n****r.” (It’s also Spanish for “black,” which can sometimes cause confusion and offense, as it did for my Argentine friend Mariem’s ex-roommate, who used it in conversation to describe someone when she recently visited New York City, and the other person heard “n****r” instead of “negro.”) But when did “black” become a dirty word? Does it still not crack? Is it no longer beautiful?

When did “black” become a dirty word? Does it still not crack? Is it no longer beautiful?

Why do “white” Americans still get to be called “white” or, simply, “American”? Is it because they’re considered too diverse for us to presume their heritage belongs to two continents only? Or is it because America is, first and foremost, their land of opportunity?

Most of the brown- and black-skinned people stuffed in the box labeled “African-American” have never even been to Africa, so why segregate them in a separate “American” box? While European-descended whites enjoy the privilege of “American,” no qualifier ever needed, their non-white fellow Americans get filed under “African-American,” “Asian-American,” “Native American,” and “Latino”?

America is not the world

I still cringe whenever I watch a TV procedural, and someone describes an unidentified suspect as an “African-American male,” as if being black automatically means you must be from the United States, or North or South America. What does that make Naomi Campbell (who is British), Oscar-nominated actress Naomie Harris (who is also British), Idris Elba (British, too), my friend Andrew (yet another Brit), Rihanna (who is from Barbados, a British Commonwealth nation), and Sidney Poitier (who is from The Bahamas, another British Commonwealth country) to people who have never heard of them and can’t tell where they were born just by looking at them?

What is Seal … or Sade … or Iman, if a person who is unfamiliar with them all is looking to categorize them by skin color without daring to utter that nasty B word. What was Bob Marley? Idi Amin? If the South African actress Charlize Theron ever has a baby with a white American guy, the kid would be African-American but as Caucasian as his or her parents. Remember, not all Africans are black.

If the South African actress Charlize Theron ever has a baby with a white American guy, the kid would be African-American but as white as his or her parents. Remember, not all Africans are black.

What about my mother and father, who were born, respectively, in Antigua back when it was a British colony and on the French side of Saint Martin. Post-naturalization, did they become, respectively, Anglo-Afro-American and Gallic-Afro-American? How ridiculous does that sound?

And come to think of it, where does that leave me? Yes, I’m of African descent, and I’m certainly American, but what about everything else that I am?

To label me “African-American” overlooks the heritage of my parents as well as the West Indian influence that probably played the most significant role in shaping the person I am, as well as the way that I speak. Nearly 46 years after moving to the U.S. mainland from the Virgin Islands, my birthplace, I still have my Caribbean accent, as English speakers around the world regularly remind me.

So the next time anyone is describing me, and they have no idea where I was born, they can skip the political correctness. “Black” is as beautiful as ever, and if they must stick a label on me based on the color of my skin (which is actually closer to chocolate), I haven’t heard a better one yet.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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