I am neither African nor American

I often like to call this my most fiery piece from FREN/CPLT 359. One point that didn’t make it to the final draft still stands out to me. I cited the Bloomberg Way style guide, where it says:

President Barack Obama’s father was from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas, so it’s accurate to say Obama is African-American. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an Austrian-American because he emigrated from Austria. Henry Kissinger, born in Bavaria, is German-American.

Former President George W. Bush isn’t described as German-American or Irish- American, although he has German and Irish ancestors, because he is generations removed from those ancestors.”

The Bloomberg Way style guide

I was convinced that the Bloomberg Way had gotten it right. That is, until I shared my first draft with other students in the class. One person pointed out that the Bloomberg Way, while well-meaning, had made an unbalanced comparison. Why is it that the Austrian emigrant is Austrian-American, the German-born is German-American, but the person with the Kenyan father isn’t Kenyan-American? It suddenly seemed to me as though the Bloomberg Way had made the subconscious implication that those from the African continent needed no patrial distinction.

While my classmates and I did not feel as though keeping this point in followed the argument of my piece, I still think it salient enough to mention here in the preface.

I often wonder why some people find the term “African American” so comforting. Does the repeated vowel sound have alliterative appeal? Has history made people afraid to say ‘the B-word’? Is it too harsh? Jarring? Abrupt? I have encountered an alarming number of instances in which people like me have been tossed into the African American box as though we B-words were some sort of monolithic group whose members could all be referred to by the same name. People like me aren’t a uniform group. Just ask the 1 in 10 people who are too-often identified as African American when they are foreign-born. This Jamaican woman is tired of being called African American. Here’s why.

Calling someone African American is reductionist. The complex reality of the personal significance of space and place is reduced to a label that is casually thrown around by persons who do not take the time to examine the words they are using.

Please tell me, dear white journalist/survey writer/commenter/friend, what is so scary about the B-word. Historically, yes, the B-word was considered offensive in the United States. So was interracial marriage. There are people alive today who were around when “negro” surpassed “colored” as the accepted term. “Negro” was socially acceptable for a very long time—in fact, until the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. The point is that this is a complex discussion that history cannot explain away. Historical context is no excuse for a lack of precision in the language we use. If the B-word is taboo, it shouldn’t be. No one should hesitate to say it, as though it’s something unkind or forbidden. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way that we talk about the members of the incredible melting pot that is the United States of America.

Tell me why, when I fill in a demographic survey, there are still places in which the B-word is associated with that “African American” modifier. Tell me why my white friend from South Africa is less African American than I am. Consider for a moment the conflation of race, culture, historical context, and geographical location that has resulted in the absurd fact that the term “African American” is associated with skin color and not country of origin. I am sensing a double standard here.

Yes, I know, it could be argued that this is a simple question of usage or verbal habit that has nothing to do with semantics. Why does it matter what we’re called if the intent isn’t racist, bigoted, or ill-meaning? Answer: it matters because “African American” is not who I am. Even if I did have an American passport—which I don’t—what gives you the right to label me as African? What about all the uniquely Caribbean aspects of my culture that are distinct from those of my African-identifying counterparts? If your point is that my ancient ancestors came from Africa, then I have news for you: if you go far enough into the past, yours did too.

The fact of my African ancestry should not determine the term by which I am to be permanently identified. Don’t call me a negro. Don’t call me colored. Hell, you don’t even have to call me a person of color. Please, don’t call me African American. For crying out loud, just call me black.

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