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The Rhetoric of Race in America

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