What to Call Hyphenated-Americans

This oped in the NY Times reveals that the term “African-American” is not a one size fits all category for those who are “black.” The problem is that it is self-segregating based on physical characteristics, not ideology or something more substantial.

Beyond this, it isn’t accurate. Let me demonstrate.

Pop quiz: How many African Americans are in Dave Matthews Band? Look closely.


Answer: there are 5 members in the band. There are two white guys. And there are four African Americans. How is this possible? Dave (2nd from the right) is from South Africa, making him both white and African American.

Alan Keyes argues that the label “African-American” only belongs to those who are descended from African slaves. But this does not do justice to African Blacks of non-slavery descent.

Unfortunately, any politically correct term can develop pejorative uses over time, creating the ever present cycle of new politically correct terms.

I am frequently at a loss as to the most appropriate and respectful way to talk about race with African-Americans. It seems that either way, there is the potential for offense.

In the opinion of the NYT editorial, the term “colored” works just fine. Provocative…

  1. I must’ve somehow missed this post recently. This is actually a pet peeve of mine and has become particularly annoying since Barack Obama has been in the news so much. Essentially, I think Keyes is right. The reasons? History, culture and race. I‘ll explain…

    First let me say, a person can be called whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned. If Barack Obama wants to be called “African-American” that’s fine with me. If Steven Seagal wants to be called “Japanese-American,” it’s kind of weird, but hey go for it (I don‘t know that he really does). Whatever. I guess it’s not about what you’re called but what you answer to. It may make some African-Americans a little annoyed and some Japanese-Americans might think Seagal took one too many chops to the old melon, but whatever.

    Anyway… “African-American” does not simply mean that one is of African descent and lives in the United States. Instead , as Keyes argues, it is correctly used to the origins of how ones ancestors came to the U.S. Think about it. Italian-American, Irish-American, Chinese American, Mexican-American, African-American. What doesn’t fit? African-American. The difference is that all of the other names denote countries while Africa, contrary to popular belief, is a continent (and a big one at that.) Why does the term use a continent? It’s nearly impossible for most descendants of enslaved Africans to know where their African ancestors are from. Even further, to prevent Africans from different people groups from forming together and becoming more powerful, slave owners (and traders I believe) put different people from different groups together. They eventually became one group of people. So think of it like this, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans are all in prison together and, not having a common language, all take on the language of the prison guards, only make it their own. Granted it’s a poor analogy, but you should get my point. Completely different people groups, who to an outsider look the same, are forced to become one. So most white folks in the US, myself included, can have a general idea of their ethnic background. My ancestors were mostly Polish and German. Most descendants of enslaved Africans can not say, I’m half Ashanti, a quarter Wolof , an eighth Yoruba and another eighth Fulani. It doesn’t work that way.

    Merely identifying the descendants of Africans enslaved in what is now the U.S. as “black” does not always work because “black” describes race, but not culture. Jamaicans are not Haitians. Haitians are not Dominicans. Sudanese are not Ghanaian. Ghanaian’s aren’t Zulu. None of ‘em are the black people who are the descendants of Africans enslaved in what is not the U.S.. So it may be correct in saying, “ There are three men in the Dave Matthews Band who appear to be at least partially black” but, without prior knowledge of the men‘s culture, it is not possible to say “There are three-African Americans in the Dave Matthews Band.” . You can see race but you can’t necessarily see culture/ethnicity.

    I honestly never thought about this too deeply until I went to South Africa in 2005. At that point it dawned on me why the term “African-American” can be helpful (go figure, right). I stayed in Durban for about five weeks. The black folks in Durban are clearly different from most black folks in the U.S.. Racially speaking, they are more African, at least from what I can tell. By “more African” I mean they are less white. The different grades of complexion found in African-Americans (think “Don Cheadle” then think “Tom Joyner”) are not nearly as common amongst the folks I was around in Durban. This highlights a very important factor, the variations in skin tone in African-Americans are often because of white ancestry. The majority of African-Americans have white ancestors. There’s a clear difference on that level.

    Also, the cultural differences were obvious. Language, clothing, customs, hair, social interactions. These are cultural identifiers that not only make folks in S. Africa different from African-Americans, but even make people in different S. African cities different from one another. Really, my conclusion based on my extremely limited experience in South Africa was, “African-Americans are culturally more American than African.” Granted it’s a generalization, but it only strengthened my appreciation for the term “African-American.”

    So to wrap up.

    1. “African-American” is a helpful term when identifying the descendants of Africans who were enslaved in what is now the U.S..
    2. Because of slavery most black folks in America can’t identify their specific ethnic roots ( Ashanti, Yoruba, Wolof, etc) and therefore identify with the heterogeneous group ( African-American). This isn’t true of most other groups in the U.S..

    3. You can usually see race, but can’t necessarily see culture/ethnicity. ( race= white/ ethnicity= English] [ race= Asian/ ethnicity= Korean] [ race= black/ ethnicity= Zambian])

    4. The term African-American shows the American ness of the descendants of Africans slaved in the U.S. (biologically and culturally) compared to actual Africans or other black people in the Diaspora.

    Ultimately, you can say whatever you want. I just figured at least this way you know why “African-American” and “black” are not always interchangeable.

    Oh, and, just to clarify, I would say that Obama’s not African-American. I would say he’s biracial, his mom is white and his dad is Kenyan. But like I said, he can call himself whatever he wants as long as the folks in the group he identifies with are cool with it.

  2. Ryan

    Good to see your comments! I appreciate your insights. I would add this: I have known some folks in the past who found the term “black” offensive. But I have also known some folks who have found the term “African-American” offensive, because they are simply American. My point here is to illustrate the complexities of these sorts of racial issues.


  3. I’ve also met folks who believe that way also. That’s when I divert to calling people whatever they want to be called. Otherwise I try to use the terms properly, as I posted. It definitely is a complex thing, but there is some method to the madness despite what it appears to be on the surface.

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