Saturday, August 30, 2008

Are they Really African-Americans?

Is Barack Obama black? Is he African-American? He, himself, has used both those terms interchangeably to characterize is own race. Two-thirds of blacks also label him as African-American. But only slightly more than half of white Americans call him that, preferring instead to refer to Obama as biracial or mixed race.

Unlike the vast majority of blacks in America today, Barack Obama can legitimately call himself an African-American, because his father was Kenyan. Most blacks have never even visited Africa, let alone been born there, or even had parents who were born there.

Here is a case in point. A college professor, on the first day of class, introduced himself and presented a brief biography, as many professors often do. Among other things, this lily-white professor said that he was an African-American.

One of the black students in his class blurted out that he didn’t think that remark was funny and, in fact, was offensive. Was he making fun of African-Americans?

The professor responded with a question: “Have you ever been to Africa?” The student’s answer was no. The professor continued: “Were your parents or grandparents from Africa?” The student responded in the negative. “Can you trace any of your ancestors to Africa?” The student said he didn’t know.

The professor explained that he was born in South Africa and spent his childhood there, so he was, indeed, African. He then immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. So he is now an American. He can very rightfully refer to himself as being an African-American.

So, he told the young black student, “I am an African-American, but you, sir, are not.”

The term African-American was popularized by Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. It was an attempt by people of color to find a descriptor for themselves, instead of having to rely on the often racially-charged descriptors that had been given to them by white people.

During the early and middle years of the 20th century, blacks were referred to as Negros and colored people. But to use the term black, was offensive. That changed in the 1960s as young, rebellious colored people began to embrace the term black. Their slogan was Black is beautiful. And they used it in defiance in phrases such as black power.

But Jackson wanted to use a descriptor similar to what other ethnic people had been using forever. Americans of obvious German ancestry called themselves German-Americans. There were Dutch-Americans and Italian-American’s too. So Jackson started using the term African-American to refer to his own people. It caught on.

Today, the terms black and African-American are used interchangeably. But if there must be a term at all, it should probably be black. Just like the professor from South Africa is a real African-American and most American blacks are not, what would you call an American with Egyptian ancestry? He is an Egyptian-American but he is also an African-American, since Egypt is in Africa. Other ethnic groups get to use one country to describe their ancestry; blacks get to use a whole continent.

And what about the few native Australians who are now Americans? Just because they are black, are they lumped in with the others and wrongfully referred to as African-Americans even though they have zero ancestors from anywhere in Africa?

The point to all this is that people who were born in America, and whose parents and grandparents were born in America, are Americans. Regardless of their color, they are Americans, not African-Americans.

The newspaper headlines are quick to point out the historic nature of having the first African-American nominated for president, just like they were all over the story about Tony Dungy being the first black NFL coach to win a Super Bowl. It’s historic only in the same sense that it was historic when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president. It’s worth an asterisk, but not much more.

If we ever want to put racial problems aside in this country, we are going to have to stop using labels to identify different races, except perhaps to identify someone to a police sketch artist.

When a redhead or a blond wins a championship, we don’t refer to them by their hair color. Why do we have to refer to them by their race, even if it is historic?

1 comment:

Beatty said...

I'm a Black American female and everything you've said I have been saying for years with regards to the term African American for Black Americans who's family has been part of this country since slavery. However I disagree with the last part of your blog, where you said that why do we have to refer to race even if this event with Obama is historic? I do think we have to refer to race with this being historic, simply because it is real and historic for any man of color or woman for that matter to have made it to this point in the presendential election. It has never, ever happned or was allowed in the past. Race and gender issues have been a real part of the history of this country and it is real. When something happens like is going on with Obama, or Hillary, or even McCain's VP pick a woman, this is all historic and must be noted. It gets us one step closer to this country getting over old racial and gender issues that have plagued us throughout the history of the U.S. It has to be noted, too many people fought and died for moments like this not to be noted as such. Dr. King I'm sure is proud if he's looking down on us.