What is African-American?

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I just found out that there is a Grade 11 student at Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska, who decided to nominate himself as a recipient of the school’s “Distinguished African American Student Award”. It turns out that not only was he denied access to the award, but he was suspended from school for two days. The young man is white and the award, according to the school, is for black students. But here’s the real kicker?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùhe’s from Africa. Actually, he’s from South Africa.

If we interpreted the name of the award literally, then so long as the young man considers himself to be American, it would seem he qualifies for the award on that merit alone. In fact, it quite likely he is more “African” than any other recipient in the last eight years.

This now leads me to wonder, what exactly does the term “African American” mean? Does it mean an American with ancestry from Africa? Or does it mean someone who’s black? What if the black person’s ancestors immigrated (or were exported, as the case may be) to Brazil or the Caribbean or even England first, lived there for a few generations and then moved to the United States. Would the term still apply to them or would they be more aptly referred to as “Brazilian American” or “Jamaican American” or “English American”? Personally, I think the whole thing is ridiculous, and here’s why.

First of all, it’s a term based on colour. Someone from Egypt or Libya isn’t referred to as African American unless he or she is black. Though we do have a similar term in “Asian American”, it doesn’t refer to people from Russia, India or Armenia. Even so, it doesn’t even refer to white persons who live in places such as Hong Kong. A term like “European American” or “Australian American” would likely be met with cynicism, so why make exceptions?

Secondly, how long would a person living in the United States be “entitled” to use such a term? In other words, how long will it be until they are just an “American”? I mean, if I was apply this politically correct logic, I’d have to use something like “French?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúSpanish?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúGerman?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúDutch?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúEnglish?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúScottish?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúCzech?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúCree?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄúCanadian”. Absurd.

Lastly, why have an award that segregates? Why can the award simply be the “Distinguished Student Award”? As long as the school is going to racially favour students, then so will other students. Make all the students equal.

Don’t get me wrong. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m all for using politically correct terms that help to avoid segregation. It’s just that in this case, it seems to do the opposite.

13 thoughts on “What is African-American?

  1. The reasons you list here are among the many I have for avoiding the term “African-American.” I just say “black.”

    I also say “Indian,” not “Native American.” I, after all, having been born in the United States, am a native American, whereas the term *Indian* has, for a very long time, had more than one meaning, one of which is *member of an ethnic tribe indigenous to the Americas*.

    I don’t call physically disabled or handicapped people “challenged.” In fact, I can’t understand what’s wrong with the word “crippled.” It means what it means—no more and no less.

  2. “It means what it means—no more and no less.”

    Ok, but then why do you say “Indian”? Since aboriginal Americans (and Canadians) are not from India? I know it’s a term that’s been used for a very long time, but it was inaccurate from the beginning.

  3. I’ve been using the terms Indo-Canadian and First Nations to eliminate some ambiguity when discussing race lately. I’ve had mixed success.

    I’m not sure Indo-Canadian is any better than African-American but it seems to have been adopted by the Canadians from the subcontinent and it’s really more descriptive when you get right down to it, I guess.

  4. Mary, I’m also not from the Caucasus region, but people call me a caucasian.

    It doesn’t matter whether the word “Indian” was inaccurate when first applied. It evolved into a word with a second, independent meaning. That happens with all kinds of words. “Canada” originally was the name of a much smaller place, and “Quebec” was the name of a single narrow pass along a river, if my memory serves correctly. Doesn’t matter. They came to mean something else.

    Calling them “Native Americans” is exactly as inaccurate as calling them “Indians” because they have no familial conection with Amerigo Vespucci.

  5. I know, that’s fine, use what you would like (I’m not being defensive, just so you know), but I still think Indians are from India, and you will see I didn’t refer to them as Native American. Or Native Canadian. Aboriginal or First Nations is more accurate, in my opinion. Which may be wrong, but there it is.

    Perhaps this is because I knew and grew up with many individuals from India. I see them as Indian, not First Nations as Indians.

  6. I think “Indo-Canadian” is a valid enough term for the sake of clarity, but I don’t see why anyone would be less (or more) offended by it than the term “American Indian.”

  7. I don’t think it’s a matter of offense (at least I wouldn’t think so, maybe some do) but perhaps accuracy. I consider myself, first and foremost a Canadian, although I have English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, German and Ukrainian in my background.

    Indo-Canadian would be those born here in Canada from India. First Nations are people of Aboriginal descent. We have a lot of Asians of varying nationalities in Canada, so to refer to First Nations people as Indo-Canadian would be more confusion. At least that’s how I understand it.

  8. I think it has a lot to do with if the label is self made (and self identified, I guess) versus placed on the group from another body.

    Indo-Canadians call themselves Indo-Canadians, etc.

  9. Most of the members of American Indian tribes to whom I’ve been exposed use the word “Indian” or “American Indian.” It seems to be mostly white liberals who take offense at the word, not the labeled people themselves.

  10. Wow.

    I can assure you if you called the first nations people in our area Indians, you may just be taking your life in your hands…

  11. Most of the members of American Indian tribes to whom I’ve been exposed use the word “Indian” or “American Indian.”

    Most of the blacks I have met refer to one another as niggers. Does that mean it’s acceptable for society to refer to all blacks as niggers?

  12. That’s skipping a rather important point: The word “nigger” is used (unfortunately, by some) with a double standard: Completely acceptable within the group but strongly offensive when offered from without.

    I don’t agree with that double standard. I think it’s repulsive and self-destructive. But there it is.

    On the other hand, that double standard doesn’t generally apply to the indigenous tribes that often refer to themselves as American Indians. And I can’t see any valid reason to take offense at the term, coming from anyone.

    On a side note, it’s interesting that the Smithsonian Institution opened the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004. You may be certain, nothing about that Museum, including its name, is disrespectful towards the tribes it represents. http://www.nmai.si.edu/index.cfm

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