What is an "African-American"?

Specifically for the purpose of whatever “preferences” remain.

  1. What if your ancestors were brought to Jamaica as slaves and your family came to the US a couple of generations ago?

  2. How about those who came from Egypt?

  3. How about white South Africans?

It is someone who used to be called ‘black’, who is someone who used to be called ‘colored’ (as in NAACP), who is someone who used to be called ‘negro’ (as in the old Negro Leagues in Baseball).

It is someone of dark skin who is an American citizen and who is not Egyptian (who is called ‘Arabic’ or ‘Middle Eastern’, geography be damned) or white South African (who is called ‘white’, since that’s still a PC term). It has nothing to do with slavery or, really, country of origin: You could have just stepped off a plane from Haiti or Trinidad and Tobago or China for that matter and you’d still be called ‘african american’.

We have done this one a few times. The working definition is really any black person that is currently living in the U.S. However, the news media in their infinite wisdom, often says things like “Nelsen Mandela is probably the most famous African-American in South Africa”.

It isn’t a very good term because it doesn’t really mean what it implies (excluding people like white South African immigrants). However, its biggest downfall is that it leaves us with no term for black people that aren’t Americans even if they are here visiting.

Not the first time that I’ve challenged this…I’ve never seen an actual example of such usage, only of paraphrased ones in discussions such as this.


I 100% guarantee you I see seen it and heard it with own eyes. Of course, you mean you need and actual cite. There have been some of these boards. Misuses of words are a little hard to search for but I will try.

“Often”? Do you have a cite of an example?

As a Sicilian, I’m conscious of my ancestry that partly originated from Africa, and I called myself African-American in that sense, fully aware that the term wasn’t originally supposed to be used in such a broad way.

It’s like all the threads here that take such pains to explain why “anti-Semitic” doesn’t really mean that, it actually means “anti-Jewish.” As for why people don’t just say “anti-Jewish” if that’s what they mean, well that’s a different question. But that’s no excuse to be a smart aleck by taking words literally! You know perfectly well what we mean!

I read a posting here some time ago that suggested African-American was a useful term for describing black American descendents of slaves. Since their country of origin is generally unknown, they can’t be more precisely called Ethiopian-American or Nigerian-American. The actress Charlize Theron was born in South Africa so she could perhaps be called African-American even though she’s white, but she could more precisely be described as South African-American.

There are many media uses of African-American as a poor substitute for black.

For example, I found several articles on the net describing Barack Obama as African-American, even though we know his father was from Kenya.

A while back, there was a brouhaha in New Jersey when a performing arts center cast a black man as Jesus in a passion play. The article in the New York Times included this quote from Rev. Kevin Ashe, director of the Park Performing Arts Center in Union City, New Jersey., in which he (presumably unintentionally) attributes nationality to God:

“In my next sermon I might start out with a little story with a question: If I died and went to heaven and passed the pearly gates and found myself gazing at God and he was African-American, would I then decide to go somewhere else?”

This sentence came out mangled. I meant this:

“It is someone of dark skin who isn’t Hispanic or Indian (either kind) or anything else. It does not include Egyptians (or, probably, any other North African), however dark they may be, because people from Egypt are always classed in with ‘Arabs’ or ‘Middle Easterners’ regardless of what the geography books say. It does not include white South Africans, because ‘white’ hasn’t become a word you can’t say in polite society.”

If someone is from America, he’s American. If he’s from Kenya, he’s Kenyan. If he’s from South Africa, no matter what the color of his skin, he’s a South African.

Race and NATIONALITY are two different things.

As to the races, they’re either “black” and “white,” or “caucasian” and “negro.” Frankly, I don’t give a damn what people decide to say, and I don’t see any reason why anyone else should.

Sure they are, and the way “African-American” is used today confuses the issue. But the term itself isn’t invalid; African-Americans or Indian-Americans or Luxembourgian-Americans may share a lot of experiences.

I’m not sure why you phrased this this way.

Neither has ‘black’ so far as I know. What is this “polite society” of which you speak? Are there really some places in America where you can’t call a black person black? I have never encountered a black person offended by the term “black” (yes, I know this doesn’t mean that there aren’t such people, I just would like to hear more about them).

As someone else mentioned above, how are you supposed to refer to a black person from another country just visiting here (if you need to describe his appearence, or differentiate him from an equally unknown white person, perhaps)?

I’ve never encountered that either. But I think it’s fair to say that some incorrect usages of “African-American” happen because people are afraid that “black” is now considered wrong or offensive.

Interesting, so how do they define “black” is it based on ancestry or do they have a skin color chart?

In Canada, we sometimes use the term “African-American” to mean black people who came (or whose ancestors came) to Canada from the United States, as opposed to from the Caribbean or Africa.

As a general practice we just say “black people” or “black Canadians” when referring to the skin colour, though I have heard “African-Canadians” from time to time.

Good point. Though I do so enjoy when white people whine and play the victim because suddenly they’re expected to use the word African-American. Obviously, their reasoning is neither sound nor valid - not only are they not required to use the term, as “black” is perfectly acceptable in practically any context, but it wouldn’t make them victims even if it weren’t.

Why would they need to define it so precisely? “Black” is a social term; as anyone with even the least bit of education should be aware by now, the concept of “race” as it’s used commonly in society is not something with any sort of biological validity. What makes someone “black” is determined socially; that’s why a person with one white parent and one black parent is regarded as black but not as white (in the United States at least.) Trying to come up with some objective means to categorize people into essentially meaningless groups is inevitably fruitless.

I get irritated at the kind of game-playing described in that article (and since I’ve heard it elsewhere, I believe it to be accurate, though I wouldn’t trust the good folks at WorldNetDaily to tell me what color the sky was.) Feigning ignorance like that is not clever, and it’s not the kind of thing likely to lead to productive dialog, in my opinion. As a word, “African-American” is unremarkable; many compound words don’t mean precisely what their component words do. The fact that I sleep in a dark room doesn’t mean I sleep in a darkroom - and the fact that someone is African and American doesn’t make them African-American. That stunt was pure childish game-playing - forgivable since they were children, but not exactly the kind of social commentary you’d think from the way it was seized upon in the media. But as the nice people at WorldNetDaily know, no one’s ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the populace.

I knew a white guy from South Africa who used to get loads of fun out of introducing himself as an African American. Good times, good times.

I Love Me, Vol. I: To be quite brief: If ‘black’ were always appropriate, why would the awkward noun phrase ‘African American’ ever have become widespread? According to Wikipedia, Malcom X invented the phrase long after ‘black’ had become a polite term and began to use it quite pointedly as opposed to the shorter term. Enough people took the hint to allow the phrase to take off, no mean feat once you consider how difficult it is to launch a new word in any living language.

My point is that language change is always informal and accomplished through peer pressure, and it takes a lot of pressure to change something like this.

Actually, Malcom X died (1965) before black had become the accepted term in the U.S. by at least two years and probably four years.

African-American (as the same Wiki article notes) was introduced as a replacement term for black by Jesse Jackson and picked up by the nation’s media on the grounds that Dr. Jackson was a spokesperson for the black community. (My memory is that Jackson announced the preference following a Labor Day meeting of a group of prominent black leaders in 1988 or 1989. The point, as noted in the Wiki article, was to treat the black community more like the Irish-American and Polish-American communites of the Rust belt cities. Following Jackson’s announcement, the Chicago Manual of Style (influenced by Jacksons’ proximity), the New York Times, and a few other papers changed their nomencalture in a matter of months.)