Three things wrong with the term “African-American”

1. It classifies black Americans in a way that is only paralleled by “Asian-Americans.” Caucasian Americans are not called European-American, let alone “French-American” because 1) Africa is a large, expansive continent, and 2) to say “European-American” is to simply refer to someone as European and American—classifications independent of race as it is understood as a social construct. The question we as an American society must ask ourselves is: why are black Americans expected to accept the linkage to the African continent when the same is not expected in the delineation of peoples of other racial backgrounds?

2. Not every black person America is “originally from Africa.” Black American-Puerto-Ricans and Panamanians, among many others, are classified as “African-American” under today’s classification of black Americans. Furthermore, these labels, like “African-American” and “Native-American,” seek to establish these “racial” groups as second class citizens when in fact their American identity is equal to that of white Americans, if not more (re: Native-Americans).

3. Above all else, race is a social construct. The “African” part of the racial label “African-American” implies that black Americans are not full Americans; this makes more sense once the term is contextualized in the period of legal slavery in the U.S. These labels are the same mechanism that Apartheid leaders were able to strategically use to create divisions within the black population, as to decrease political autonomy and prevent their unification in an attempt to overhaul the oppressive Apartheid regime.

Today, I believe the many black Americans who identify as African-American are well within their right to do so; no one is qualified to impose their presumptions of “race” on another person. Several black Americans have argued that the term is true to their origins as descendants of formerly enslaved peoples captured from, in large, the Western coasts of Africa. Still, when introducing the term African-American as a racial category, it is important to remain cognizant of the historical origins and implications of our word-choice.

About Sabriyya

Political Science and Public Policy Studies double major from Virginia, interning at the Hate Crimes Working Group.
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19 Responses to Three things wrong with the term “African-American”

  1. Laleh Bahrami says:

    Very insightful! I love your phrase, “why are black Americans expected to accept the linkage to the African continent when the same is not expected in the delineation of peoples of other racial backgrounds.”

  2. Russ says:

    Perhaps most striking is the frequent use in the US of the term to refer to people on the blind assumption that they are American. A person could easily be black and from France, Germany, Ireland, you name it. Still, it’s not like (the United States of) America is heading down an isolationist route, is it?

  3. PhysicalAntrhopology says:

    I agree. My mother is black Caribbean from Guyana. She has no history in America yet she would be called “African American” by ignorant people who don’t bother to think critically about the labels they use on people. Honestly, “African American” shouldn’t be used at all, and if it is, it applies only to black Americans with a history in America. Today, it is treated as though “African Americans” are the default black people which is is offensive and perpetuates the idea that Americans think of themselves as being default representatives of the world when they’re not. Calling any black person or mixed race person with partial African descent, “African American”, is like going up to a seemingly Eastern Asian person and calling them Chinese, or calling someone who appears to be Western European, English. “African American” is an ethnic identity, not a race.

    • Alaine says:

      I, like your mother, am a black person from the Caribbean. When I’ve been applying for US scholarships which international students are applicable for, none of the racial backgrounds define me. They’ve had African American, Hispanic/Latino, and White. I’ve had to give up on applying for them, although my mother just told me to choose African American. But I’m not African American. I’m a black girl from Jamaica.

      • kevin says:

        you’re Jamaican. that’s it. you represent Jamaica. if you attach “adjectives” like black, brown, purple, orange, etc. then you are not representing the land (nation) you were born.

      • Ryan says:

        You all do OR don’t realize that the Caribbean is in the AMERICAS and that Black Caribbeans are the descendants of AFRICANS enslaved in the Caribbean?

      • Dr. B says:

        Even the Caribbean blacks’ ancestors came from Africa by way of Spanish slave trade. We all came from the motherland even if we ended up in another location other than America, so with that being said any current American who is black could be safely identified as African American.

  4. Adam says:

    I pose the question. The term African American is used to define a race. Using African American instead of ‘black’. So I’m “white” not black but I am from Cape of Good Hope, Africa. So by all rights I am African American.

    • Ella says:

      Exactly! You are so right. I’m black and I consider myself to be a black American and I 100% believe that you have more of a right to consider yourself African American than I do!

  5. George W Lewis says:

    Good post.

    It is unfortunate that the English language is being ruined by a few very confused black people.

    Of course, you are not an African American if you were not born in Africa and moved to America.

    I love how this term is used to describe former President Obama, who is a mulatto because his mother was white. And, Obama is not an African American because he was born in America, not Africa.

    But, when blacks have black women like Congress women Frederica Wilson calling President Trump a white racist and black football players knelling doing the pledge of allegiance and wearing socks that say police are pigs, what is next?

    • kevin says:

      “It is unfortunate that the English language is being ruined by a few very confused black people.” – George W. Lewis

      It’s unfortunate to not teach “Civics” properly in public schools.
      It’s unfortunate that “a few white people teach the few black people” in public schools that their ancestors are from Africa.
      It’s unfortunate that you don’t bring up who’s responsible for the job applications asking what “Ethnicity” people are.

      So no sir, this is an institutional issue that needs to be addressed all around the board.


    I been saying this for the longest when that term African American first came out i was really piss off with this because us as black people in the USA was accepting that term and not realizing what they was making us when they call us that, the term African American means that you was born in Africa and became a American citizen making your self a second class citizen, if your born in the USA and they want to call you by race you are a Black America but i am a American first i will not accept nothing less then that, i told my doctor not to call me a African American if u wanna go by race call me a Black American, no one is going to rob me of my first class citizenship in this country and don’t let them rob you of yours by calling you a African American.

  7. George W Lewis says:

    Great Points. Very few blacks living in America are African Americans. These blacks living in America may have African heritage if their parents or other ancestors were born in Africa.

    It is real simple, if you were born in Africa and then moved to America, then you are an African American.

    Many blacks who live in many countries and were not born in Africa, are not African anything, except they may have African heritage if their parents or ancestors were born in Africa.

    A recent instance of this confusion is calling President Barack Obama an African American. Obama was born in Hawaii, not Africa. His mother was white, and his father was a black man who was born in Rachuonyo District, British Kenya, which is in Africa.

    Since Obama’s mother was white and his father black, Obama is a mulatto born in Hawaii, USA, not born in Africa. He is not an African American.

    The term African-American has crept steadily into the nation’s vocabulary since 1988, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a news conference to urge Americans to use it to refer to blacks. This speaks volumes on Jackson’s ignorance.

  8. Leigh says:

    I consider first and second generation people from a country in Africa to be rightfully known as “African Americans” for a duration. Negros in America who have been in this country for decades and decades are not (in my observation) culturally African. Africans whom I have met have a very different culture, one that has very different perspectives on education, language and articulation, and career goals. The descriptive term “African” should be relegated to those who more recently immigrated from Africa and not due solely on the basis of skin color. It’s just wrong. I never thought the term was genuine or fitting.

  9. gen agustsson says:

    agreed that theres something wrong with the term african-american but black is a color not an ethicity.

  10. veronica says:

    And this is the problem. Few melanated people living in America understand their true identity. I cannot be African America because, for 1, I wasn’t born in Africa nor were my parents or their’s. I didn’t migrate to America. The American govt has given these connotations and labels to melanated people far too long! How dare they! We have been robbed of our true identity. How about we go back to what TMH, said who we are, his chosen people. That’s a good start. Jesse Jackson accelerated this movement to call melanated people(s) African American and I’m using melanated, because black is not a race nor an identity. Melanated people(s) who were born on this tainted soil, are native Americans. Indigenous to the land.

  11. Dr. B says:

    Citizenship should not be confused with this term’s deliberate intention to connect us to our African heritage. Even the Caribbean blacks’ ancestors came from Africa by way of Spanish slave trade. We all came from the motherland even if we ended up in another location other than America, so with that being said any current American who is black could be safely identified as African American.

  12. I hate the fact that someone could even think they have the prerogative to decide what I should be called. But then again, this is what White Americans feel is their right. Well, you are dead wrong. Also, I am not your “minority.’ To refer to someone as a “minority” is to suggest they are “less-than” what you believe yourself to be. I am not an African American, I am Black. I am not your minority and never shall be. You are not my superior if you did not die, three days later rose again with all power in your hands. It is time you know and accepts that fact. Period. Ben Harrison, Ph.D.

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