In Your Words: Black or African American?

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Last week we wrote about the ongoing debate over whether “black” or “African American” is the preferred term among black Americans born in the United States. A 2011 The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 42 percent of respondents preferred to be called black, compared to 35 percent who went by African American and 13 percent who said it didn’t matter.

We noted some complexities within this debate — what about African immigrants, non-black Africans and second-generation Americans with roots in Africa? A number of you with similar backgrounds chimed in to offer thoughts on what you preferred to be called, and how you’ve navigated racial identity in America.

Commenter Frenchie wrote she prefers to be called “Haitian-American:”

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.

Some readers were unsure of what to call themselves, such as commenter 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.
Reader kgc31 also faces challenges in how to self-identify. Her husband’s family is Jamaican, while hers is Egyptian. “My parents were actually born on African soil,” she notes, but her husband is considered African American and she isn’t. “It’s just to complicated,” she writes.

Commenter Elijah405 noted that the origin of all black people traces back to Africa, a result of the slave trade. This painful history makes debates over racial identity “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.

Another commenter noted the debate is “purely an American phenomenon:”

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.

While some wrote they didn’t mind going by either term, a few people said that “African American” sounds too politically correct, such as 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.


  • Anonymous

    The name of a people should be tied to land (Japanese; Irish; French).  By embracing “African-American” we clearly celebrate our experience.

  • Guest

    Japan, Ireland, and France are *countries*…not continents. 

    Africa is a continent.  It is divided into 54 countries.

    If you want to “celebrate your experience” find your ancestors *country-of-origin* in Africa and call yourself that.  African American is vague and sloppy.  Kenyan American or Nigerian American, however, are specific and accurate.

    Please do not negate and flatten the identity of all Black People into one politically correct term.  A Bahamanian American or Haitian American has no need for the term “African American”.

    Call yourself something real, not something designed to make White People feel better.