FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why “African-American” is a Patronizing, Even Racist Term

by M. G. PIETY

I do not like the expression “African-American.” It’s patronizing, condescending, and racist. It was coined, rumor has it, to help counteract the corrosive effect of racism on the self-esteem of black Americans. But how is that supposed to work? In practice, I would argue, the effect is unavoidably the reverse. White Americans are never referred to as “European-Americans,” so to identify black Americans as “African-American” is to suggest that they are only half American.

Do a google search on the term “African-American” if you want to see how many black Americans feel about it. Check out the Facebook page “Don’t Call Me African-American,” or Charles Mosley’s guest column in in the February 12, 2013 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “By using the term ‘African-American’ to refer to black people,” Mosley writes, “columnists, readers, TV hosts and commentators perpetuate and embrace Jim Crow racial stereotypes, segregation and historical distortions. … Africa is not a racial or ethnic identity. Africa is a geographical identity.”

In fact, you almost never hear blacks refer to themselves as “African-American,” unless it is to please a white audience, and there is a good reason for that: They do not think of themselves as African-American. They do not identify with Africa, at least not until we remind them, by referring to them as “African-American,” that they are supposed to.

By referring to black people as “African-American,” we are effectively reminding them that they should not feel too at home here because, really, they are only half American. Hyphenated designations may be fine to apply to people who strongly identify with another culture, but they are offensive and insulting when applied to people who do not and who actually have greater claim to being fully “American” than do most white Americans.

Most black Americans do not identify with Africans and most genuine African-Americans (i.e., people who recently emigrated from Africa to the U.S. or who divide their time between two continents) do not identify with black
Americans. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made this point very movingly in a recent talk she gave at the Free Library in Philadelphia as part of a tour she is on to promote her new book Americanah.

“American,” Adichie explained in response to a question about what race she had in mind when someone was referred to simply as “American,” “is a mark that culture leaves, never a physical description.” She said that when she came to the U.S. she did not want to be identified with black Americans and even “recoiled” when a man in Brooklyn referred to her as “sister.” I’m not your sister, she thought to herself. I have three brothers and I know where they are, and you’re not one of them!

She said she did not identify with black Americans, that she did not understand their experiences. Her friends, she explained, when she first came to the U.S. as a university student, were other foreign students. She felt she had more in common with them than she had with black Americans and suspected this feeling was shared by most Africans on first coming to the U.S.

Adichie explained that she had come to have enormous respect for American blacks, for the “resilience and grace of a people who had weathered a terrible history.” She said that now, if she went back to Brooklyn and someone there called her “sister” she would be pleased, that she would think YES! It took “a journey,” she explained though, “race in America,” she said, “is something you have to learn.”

White Americans could learn something important about black Americans, or more correctly, about American culture, by listening to Adichie. Adichie said she thought James Baldwin was the best American writer of the last two hundred years. Not the best African-American writer, she emphasized, but the best American writer.

She has a point. Go Tell it on the Mountain is not simply, as Wikipedia states, a novel “that examines the role of the Christian Church in the lives of African-Americans, both as a source of repression and moral hypocrisy and as a source of inspiration and community.” It is a novel that examines the role of the Church in the lives of Americans more generally in that the Church has had those dual roles in the lives of Americans of all races.

Yes, Go Tell it on the Mountain is a novel about a black family, but it is also a novel about an American family, not a Nigerian family, or Kenyan family, or a Somali family. Until we acknowledge that we will continue to live a lie, a lie that diminishes not merely black Americans but all of American culture, a culture of which black Americans are an inexorable part and to which they have made an immeasurably positive contribution.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

 

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
Russell Mokhiber
Save the Patients, Cut Off the Dick!
Steven M. Druker
The Deceptions of the GE Food Venture
Elliot Sperber
Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben’s Shortsighted ‘War on Climate Change’
Binoy Kampmark
Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević
Walter Brasch
The Contradictions of Donald Trump
Michael Donnelly
Body Shaming Trump: Statue of Limitations
Weekend Edition
August 19, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Hillary and the War Party
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Prime Time Green
Andrew Levine
Hillary Goes With the Flow
Dave Lindorff
New York Times Shames Itself by Attacking Wikileaks’ Assange
Gary Leupp
Could a Russian-Led Coalition Defeat Hillary’s War Plans?
Conn Hallinan
Dangerous Seas: China and the USA
Joshua Frank
Richard Holbrooke and the Obama Doctrine
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail