African American (1988- ) is a term for blacks in America, those native-born Americans who look at least part African. Although “black” is still the common word, “African American” has become the politically correct term, the one it is always safe to use in mixed company.
Not everyone who is black in America is an African American. The word does not apply well to foreigners, especially those from the West Indies or even Africa itself, strangely enough.
Maybe I travel in the wrong circles, but of the people I know, most who use the term are white Americans with university educations. They seem more comfortable with it than the word “black”. It fits in with their colour-blind racism, which looks at American society as if skin colour no longer matters – all the while looking down on dark-skinned people!
I know there are blacks who use the word, like Barack Obama. And I know the word is a way to show pride in Africa. But because I mainly hear it in the mouths of well-to-do whites, for me it has come to mean something like “those poor people who cannot help being screwed up because they were born black”. And it is said in a way as if the word was too good for them, like a poor man in a Brooks Brothers suit. It has become a white euphemism for black.
So it is not a word I use.
Although it has been in use for 20 years it is not about to take the place of “black”.
For example, Mildred Loving died last month, so there have been plenty of stories about her in the news. If you search the Internet for “Mildred Loving” and “black woman” you get 20,400 pages. But if you search for her name with “African American woman” you get only 871 pages. That is less than 5%. The word “black” is 20 times more common. (“Negro woman” gives you 65 pages and “colored woman”, 10).
Even the ever-so-politically-correct New York Times called her a black woman. The Economist found a way to avoid calling her either.
The idea behind the word is that just as those whose families came to America from Italy are called Italian Americans, so those whose families came from Africa are called African Americans. So far, so good. But there is a difference because of the One Drop Rule: someone who is only one-eighth Italian would not be called Italian American unless his family name was Italian. But most people who are one-eighth African or more are called African American – even if they are mostly European by blood!
That is because African American is not an honest word. Blacks in American society still function as a race, like it or not, but this word tries to hide that fact.
But what if everyone used the word? Would that help to make them colour-blind? Not likely: after 20 years all it has done is help to make people into colour-blind racists.
- African American as a term from the point of view of:
- an African: stuff white people do: fail to distinguish african immigration from slavery descent
- a white American: What do I call “them”
- a black Canadian: Gloria Reuben
- other words for African Americans:
- colour-blind racism
- Race in America
- One Drop Rule
- style guide: names
- political correctness