Black or African American?

Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images

The 2010 Census form had one option for "black, African American or Negro."

What do you say: “black” or “African American?” As someone who regularly writes about race and demographics, I often find myself using both terms interchangeably. But there is no clear on consensus on which term is most accurate or preferred, as Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington writes in a story this week on the debate.

Washington notes that the term “African American,” which came from the black intelligentsia, became popularized after the Rev. Jesse Jackson used it in the 1980s. Jackson told reporters at the time: “Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical, cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”

But not everyone today prefers to be called African American. According to a January 2011 The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll [PDF], 42 percent of respondents said they preferred to be called black, compared to 35 percent who preferred African American (13 percent said it didn’t matter). From Washington’s story:

“I prefer to be called black,” said Shawn Smith, an accountant from Houston. “How I really feel is, I’m American.”

“I don’t like African-American. It denotes something else to me than who I am,” said Smith, whose parents are from Mississippi and North Carolina. “I can’t recall any of them telling me anything about Africa. They told me a whole lot about where they grew up in Macomb County and Shelby, N.C.”

Gibré George, an entrepreneur from Miami, started a Facebook page called “Don’t Call Me African-American” on a whim. It now has about 300 “likes.”

“We respect our African heritage, but that term is not really us,” George said. “We’re several generations down the line. If anyone were to ship us back to Africa, we’d be like fish out of water.”

“It just doesn’t sit well with a younger generation of black people,” continued George, who is 38. “Africa was a long time ago. Are we always going to be tethered to Africa? Spiritually I’m American. When the war starts, I’m fighting for America.”

There are complexities beyond those who don’t feel a connection to Africa. As Washington notes, there are white people from Africa. I have Egyptian-American friends who find themselves torn when having to identify official forms as either “Caucasian” (which they feel is inaccurate) or “African American.” Black Latinos, who make up 10 percent of D.C.’s Latino population, face having to identify with one group over the other. D.C., which is home to 18,000 black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries, has one of the largest expatriate Ethiopian communities in the world. There have been tensions between the African immigrant community and D.C.’s “other” black community. So is lumping everyone together as African Americans the best way to describe a community? Is using “black” fraught with other kinds of pitfalls? What’s your take?

  • Elijah405

    I think it’s pretty simple to a certain extent. It’s just race or ethnicity, and how you prefer to be defined. Although we are all apart of the ‘human’ race, ‘black’ is a racial term. African American is the ethnicity of many black people born here.  That is denoted by nationality and descent and so forth…many people will then say that maybe their family came from the Caribbean or another place-but when you get down to it because of diaspora and more importantly the slave trade-most blacks did originate from Africa. I think it’s just a hard conversation. Most of us don’t feel ties enough to Africa to be referred to as African American. But then again, do a lot of  ’white’ people go around identifying themselves as Australian American or  European American? Africa is a huge continent, who knows what country in Africa I’m from? I sure don’t! You see, this can get real muddled. I don’t really mind either term though!

  • Raymond Jean-Philippe

    Can anyone explain to me ,What is African/Americanism…and Whom is qualified.
    Raymond Jean-Philippe,
    Chairman of the African-Union Foundation,Inc

  • Frenchie

    As a Haitian-American from Miami now living in DC, I prefer to be called Haitian-American lol. However, I do realize that ethnic differences are not immediately obvious to others so the term black, although limited in its “one-drop” American  context, is preferable when having to choose between 2 evils. I prefer not to be called African-American because it doesn’t  correctly encompass my history or background. Additionally, there  continue to be tensions between “member of the African diaspora, “exotic” blacks  and African-Americans  “regular” blacks. That often painful and tense history continues to prevent black immigrants from feeling as if African-American can ever be an all-inclusive term and, thus, makes “black” our default.

  • kgc31

    Very interesting topic and I think about it a lot. My husband’s family is Jamaican, my family is Egyptian, but he’s African-American and I’m not? But my parents were actually born on African soil. It’s just too complicated.

  • Bakari Kamau

    Just call me Black. “African American” strikes me as guilty white-people talk. We can dice up ethnicity and heritage over a long conversation, but I like to make it easy.

  • Cia0912

    My parents were born in the Caribbean islands.  (Their origins stem from Jamaica and Cuba).  I was born in England.  But because I lived in US, I was called African-American.  Really!!  Seriously!!  Now I live in the Middle East.  I wonder what I am called now.

  • Guest

    This is purely an American phenomenon because America fetishes “race” (for obvious reasons).

    The equal of “African American” is the term “European American”.  Yet, we do *not* call White People “European American”.  We call them White.  We refer to them by their RACE. 

    Why, then,  is it “wrong” to call Black People “Black”?  Especially since “Black” is equal to “White” as a racial descriptor?  Is there something wrong with being Black? 

    We can’t possibly know every White Person’s ancestry so we simply call them “White”.  We don’t call them “European American” for a simple and obvious reason: not all White People are from Europe.

    We refer to all people by their *COUNTRY OF ANCESTRY*, not their *CONTINENT OF ORIGIN*.   

    Hence, German American, Australian American, Icelandic American.  How useless, innacurate, and offensive would it be to erase difference with “European American”? 

    How is a person of Haitian or Carribean descent (who lives in the United States) served by “African American”?  Why are they accurately described by their ethnic origin in other countries but flattened into “African American” in the U.S. by virtue of skin color only?  It seem offensive and reflexive.

    All humans of all races are ”People of the African Diaspora”.  That continent is, according to the fossil record, where life and humans began.  The question is: what does it serve to erase real difference and real understanding worldwide in favor of indulging White Guilt in one country that has repressed culpability?

    Ignorance is served.  Only in America.

  • Jenjenallison

    I wonder about this often, since an incident where I refered a manager to “the two black ladies” who needed additional help and those ladies lost it on me. It was simply a descriptor so he knew who to speak with, but was unfortunately taken the wrong way.

     I will call anyone whatever they prefer to be called! I love how the Braxton’s have cute names, like chocolate and snowflake…and think we could settle this easily by referring to people as chocolate or vanilla, or latte or cappaccino or espresso…whatever works for the skintone.

  • Elijah405

    I would ask that the moderator of this forum reviews posts before they can go up. This way we can effectively silence trolls like this one who have nothing meaningful to add to a discussion but hate and vitriol. I feel sorry for this person, it must be rough to live in such an isolated world organically. 

  • Guest

    Charlize Theron is African American.

  • Randymau416

    Hey Bitter-do us all a favor and start planning your Valentines Day gift for your girlfriend.

    Oops sorry, I guess I thought you might be a normal person with some sort of reasonable intelligence. It must suck to be as lonely as you to sit around in front of your only friend(the computer) and hurl insults to cover up your feelings of inadequacy. 

    Maybe you can take your computer on a date tomorrow then? At least let it have some of those chocolates that you engulf while sitting there on your lard-ass daily.


  • Elahe Izadi

    Unfortunately, I’ll have to close the comments’ section to this blog post because of a few commenters who are repeatedly posting racial slurs. Thanks to everyone who offered thoughtful feedback and comments.