Is using "Black" instead of "African-American" generally considered offensive?

I got called out for using the adjective “Black”, on the basis that I should have used the more respectful “African-American”. My transgression was the topic of dinner table conversation for a few minutes. The setting was a big official event centered partly on discussion of ethnicity and racism, and the issue wasn’t my bringing up race, not at all – it was the choice of term. I’m not African-American or Black myself, I’m an outsider to that demographic group.

I understand my use of “Black” was offensive at that time to the person who addressed me about it, but I didn’t know or anticipate that it would be, and looking around online hasn’t cleared it up for me. I’ve avoided the term “Black” since then, but I wish I knew more about whether I should and why. So, generally, is “Black” considered an offensive term? And is “African-American” safe?


The term African American is considered offensive by my colleagues and I was asked not to use such a term. I was told black is acceptable or, alternatively, I could refer to their nationality. None are American.

So, it entirely depends upon the audience hearing the term. There seems not to be a single universally safe and non-offensive term.

Since they aren’t African Americans, why would you want to call them that?

I’ve never tried, but I don’t think any of the Irishmen I’ve worked with would take it too well if I insisted on calling them Italians.

I find both terms offensive. Who cares what color their skin is? There is no reason whatsoever to try to hang a label on someone that identifies them by skin color. Unless you are giving a physical description of them - the only exception.

In my experience, white people get more worked up about this than black people do.

“African American” is a more precise term, which is why I prefer to use it in formal conversation. For instance, there is no culture that is shared by black people. But African-American culture? Sure. And if I’m talking about nationality/ethnicity more than race, “African American” is quite appropriate.

But I prefer “black” for no other reason than it’s easier to say. It doesn’t come across as archaic like “negro” does, or as bizarre as “colored”. Also, I’m not going to stop calling people “white” any time soon.

As with most things, it depends…especially on the audience.

But I would gather that either is less offensive than Alabama porch monkey, a term have heard frequently in the South.

The only people I’ve ever seen take offense to “black people” are snooty white people. Sorry, English-Americans.

Might get raised eyebrows if you call them “the blacks” though.

Why don’t you just call them anything you want and be man enough to defend your call? These is-this-racist questions are starting to hurt my eyes.

I’m with monstro. I have a colleague who is British, and he’ll nicely point out that he’s not African American. No worries about pickets in front of one’s house.

I don’t see how Black is offensive. For some reason, I don’t think you can pull of “red” or “yellow,” but Black and White seem to be used without any concern. Here in Texas, if you’re talking demographics, you can also hear Brown used. (Otto Santa Ana has a book called Brown Tide Rising.)

I’ve never known any black person who had a problem with the term black, but a couple who had a problem with being called “African American”–a Haitian, and a special snowflake who likes to think he’s “Hebrew”.

“Colored” was the polite term for Americans with dark skin. “Negro” developed as a preferable term to “Colored” in the 1940s. “Black” replaced it as the preferable term in the 1960s. “African-American” replaced that.* The term preferred by an individual depends a lot on when they grew up.

*It’s particularly accurate, though; many “African Americans” came to the US from the Caribbean, for instance.

Way, way more worked up. Surveys usually show that black Americans prefer the term “black,” but white people are frequently terrified to call a black guy black for some reason.

“Hey, is there an IT guy who can fix my workstation?”

“Yeah, Terry can.”

“The SCA guy?”


“The blonde guy with the beard?”

“Uh…no…dark hair…glasses…has a blue shirt on…”

“The young black guy?”

(Hugely relieved) “Yes the young black guy that’s him Terry.”

Seriously, white people getting offended about someone being “black” is as silly as being offended about being called white. I would be tempted to turn it around on them: “Are you suggesting there’s something wrong with being black? It’s not an affliction, you know.”

The only people I ever met who wanted to specifically be called ‘African American’ are those who wear traditional African clothing, which always seems weird and out of place even to my other black friends. On the one hand, you are identifying with the fact you are ‘American’, as in ‘treat me no different and label me no different than anyone else’ but on the other, you are singling yourself out as different with non-standard clothing that is anything BUT American and asking that you be labeled ‘African’ even though you and several generations of your family were, in fact, born in America.

As such, I only use the term African American in those circumstances, and otherwise just call anyone else black.

Other than a physical description, I can see plenty of reasons to use the term in discussing demographics, no different than you would speak of white people or asian people, or subcategorize them as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. I think the fear of discussing differences is exactly how we get into trouble because we avoid discussing race based issues on the basis that doing so is itself racist. If there is a disease or crime problem that hits an asian culture, no one has an issue discussing it and everyone wants to fix it. If the same problem is hitting the black population, everyone (including black people) tip toe around it for fear that it is somehow labeling balck people as inferior to other races. I don’t care about the color of someone’s skin, but if they have a problem that disproportionately affects them, you can bet I will use race in my description of the problem, if it is indeed a factor.

I should also note that there is a subtle socio-linguistic difference between “African-American” and “Black.” Simply put, the former is in a more formal register than the latter; so we would use AA in formal settings and Black in casual ones (even if talking about the same guy/etc).

That is part of the difference between newspaper/government/workplace/academic speech and everyday language.

This is in addition to the different definitions that Black and AA hold (as outlined in above posts).

What do you call an Anglo person who was born & raised in South Africa before taking up residence in the US?

On the contrary, I think “black” is much more precise. I mean “African-American” *includes *white Americans of South African ancestry, and excludes black people who do not live in America.

“African-American” only refers to Americans descended from enslaved Africans. It’s strictly an ethnic label of a US ethnic group. “Black” is a racial term for a much larger group of people.

You may think this is what “African American” means. But your thought is not correct.

I use “black” as a physical descriptor, if it’s necessary, and “African-American” to refer to anything where the cultural context might be important (and the cultural context is Americans descended from enslaved Africans. An Ethiopian immigrant would not be usually referred to as “African-American” in my experience. A white South African would simply be “South African” or “South African-American” if for some reason the land of origin is pertinent.) I don’t assume every black person I see is African-American. That would be silly.