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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:
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Last week, I wrote about my decision to drop my “Americanized” name in favor of my Persian birth name, and a number of you chimed in about the perils and pitfalls of having a foreign name in the U.S.
The choice to drop or legally change such a name can be complicated. For some, birth names don’t match the common name structure in the United States. Commenter Curtis Alia writes that U.S. officials documented the wrong last name for his Arab father when he immigrated to the U.S. due to misunderstanding the Arab naming structure: “When I was born, I was given that same incorrect last name, and only until 1994 did we finally change our names to the actual family names from back home.”
Some immigrants make the decision to legally change their names rather than adopt an informal nickname, and marriage presents a convenient opportunity to do so. But that decision could mean losing a meaningful connection. Commenter island girl in a land w/o sea, who is an immigrant with a Spanish name, writes:
When I got married, I changed my name to my husband’s more “American” family name — a choice that i still struggle with. At the time, I was tired of people mangling my last name and making assumptions based on it. Yet now that my parents are gone, I sometimes wish that I had retained my father’s name, or at the very least, come up with some sort of compound-name compromise.
Flickr: The White House
President Barack Obama
Aside from the politically-charged debate surrounding President Barack Obama’s decision to reveal his long-form birth certificate this week, the story highlighted something for me on a highly personal level: questioning the “American-ness” of second-generation Americans.
First, a word about me: I’m Iranian-American, born and raised in D.C. and Maryland, respectively. And on the numerous occasions I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” I give the accurate response to that question: D.C. and Maryland. Rural Maryland, in fact, where bringing cowbells to both football games and high school graduations is the norm, and a common excuse for being late to class is claiming you got stuck behind a tractor on a two-lane road. I can’t think of anything more stereotypically small-town American.
My response is typically met with a blank stare, and perhaps a follow-up of “No, really. Where?” I know the answer I gave is not the one wanted, despite its accuracy.