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Do We Really Need to Say, "African American?"

01/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Doon Baqi U.S. Army Officer, Paratrooper, Actor, Writer, Lawyer

I take issue with the term "African American."

I often read things about the "African American vote," for example, compared to, say, the "white vote." By changing "black" to "African American," a segment of the population is made foreign. An African American is an American of African descent. Which of course, is entirely true. However, I find the term racist, when taken in perspective. You start at home (America) and then take it to a faraway place (Africa) and a black person becomes an American who is from Africa. By using the descriptive "African," the subtle implication is that it stands opposite an American (or an American American), which is an American from America.

"White," if you notice, does not get the same foreign stature. European Americans, described as "white," are not subject to the same "non-nativity" that the blacks are. "My coworker is African American," they will tell you, and when you ask them what they themselves are, they will reply, "I'm white, just plain old American." The whites become American ("American" Americans, an American of American descent) and the blacks become African ("African" Americans). A Chinese American becomes an American of Chinese descent, someone who was once foreign and came here to be among the Americans, the African Americans and the Mexican Americans.

And let us not forget the Native Americans, who quite frankly, are the only ones who should be described simply as "American." I think we should remove this racist methodology altogether. And if we are going to use it at all by inserting country (or continent, to clarify for Sarah Palin), then we should be consistent with it. It's racist and ethnocentric to say that a British American is an American while we make African Americans from a faraway land. There should be African Americans and Italian Americans and Chinese Americans and Irish Americans, British Americans, and so on.

Actually, this brings up another point. If we are going to use Italian American and Chinese American describing the country of origin, which we often do, then why are blacks categorized into a continent? Don't they deserve descriptions of similar stature, like Ethiopian American or Kenyan American? I realize that many Americans of African descent do not know the country of origin which would make this difficult. I just don't see why we need to use it when we don't use it for European Americans.

"This black friend of mine was...." Most people have said something similar to this at some point. They describe a party they may have attended with their black friend. Or a movie they saw with their black friend. Or this black guy who asked a certain question in a meeting. This amazes me. For centuries, black people can tell you exactly who they are describing from the party or the movie or the meeting without using the race description.

Similarly, white people can tell you that they went to a movie with that tall friend of theirs, the short haired friend, the pudgy balding friend. I realize that sometimes when you have a group of, say, ten white people and one black person, it may be the easiest way to pinpoint the black person. I argue that it's not always true that the easiest way is the best way. What if we were to think of the very next descriptive term that could indicate that person? If they are black and tall and wearing the only red shirt in the party, we skip the "black" and say the "tall" guy, or the guy with the "red shirt." Imagine the same group of eleven people, only this time they are all white. Now you would have to look beyond the skin color and describe the person using different adjectives.

Considering the history of race isolation that our country has had to deal with, is it really that draining on the energy sources to go down the list to the next descriptive adjective to pinpoint someone? You could describe the guy as the tall guy in a suit from the party. And your friend will ask you, "You mean the black guy?" And you could say, "Yes, but he was also the tallest and the only one in a suit." And your friend will be flabbergasted at the fact that you didn't just say African American.

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