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Don’t call me African American | The Contrarian

A case for ditching the overused, inaccurate and stodgy-sounding term.
Illustration: Ian Dingman
By Tomi Obaro |

“Do bla—…do you guys, do African-Americans, do you tan?”

We were sitting in the school library. It was a ridiculous question to be sure, but exactly the daring kind a 13-year-old girl asks another 13-year-old girl when they have just decided to become best friends.

Her automatic self-correction annoyed me. “I’m not African-American,” I said. “I’m black.”

“No,” my friend replied, her voice rising with confidence. “You’re African-American. It’s the correct term.”

“But I’m not American,” I countered, “I’m Nigerian.” We argued a little while longer, then grew bored and changed the subject.

Years later, I still get irritated when some well-intentioned white person talks politely about one of her African-American friends who also has African-American hair styled like mine, or how much she just loves African-American music because it’s so full of rhythm and culture, you know, and isn’t it so great that Barack Obama is our first African-American President and so on. It’s almost as bad as people who tell me they’ve been to South Africa when they learn I’m Nigerian.

You see, aside from the fact that, up until February when I earned my citizenship, the term African-American was literally an inaccurate description of me, I’ve never liked the phrase.

It’s a term used among well-meaning, left-leaning white folk. I get that. I’ve actually seen white people flinch when I use the term black in their presence, so accustomed are they now to the stale, sterile descriptor African-American. And that’s just it. African-American is so stodgy, so…politically correct. And it’s far from accurate: African-American automatically excludes the ever-growing numbers of black people in this country who recently immigrated, or who may not be African at all. It’s a clunker of a word, too, taking up far too much space when a nice monosyllabic black will do.

According to a 2009 Newsweek cover story, “Even Babies Discriminate,” white parents are reticent to talk to their children about race. That’s not surprising. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if the topic ever comes up, it’s usually only to tell little Michael that the polite term is African-American, not black. But fussing over terminology is simply a convenient distraction from more pressing issues. It enables certain lazy liberals to feel as if they’ve done their part in the big, bad war against racism—racial profiling and discriminatory hiring practices be damned. Somebody just called Denzel Washington a black man! Oh, the horror!

Add to this the fact that you’ll be hard pressed to find African-Americans who regularly refer to themselves as African-Americans. A casual perusal of the two powerhouses in the black magazine world, Ebony and Essence, reveals that Black is far more likely to be used than African-American. And African-American sounds woefully out of place in a Chris Rock or Donald Glover stand-up routine. Yet the term refuses to die.

In May, supermodel-turned-spokeswoman-for-all-black-people Naomi Campbell railed against what she perceived as a racist Cadbury chocolate advertisement. The infamous ad had the phrase move over naomi, there’s a new diva in town scrawled in loopy cursive above an illustration of the new Cadbury Dairy Milk Bliss chocolate bar. Indignant, Campbell released a skewering statement: “I am shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate not just for me, but for all…black people. I do not find any humor in this. It is insulting and hurtful.” (As for being called a diva, even Naomi Campbell couldn’t deny that.)

The controversy was widely publicized. Cadbury pulled down the ad and apologized. Suddenly, chocolate was added to the list of adjectives to be avoided when describing black people. (The list includes articulate, sassy, angry and clean.) At the time, I thought the whole thing was ludicrous. You’re offended because a chocolate company referred to you as chocolate? Man, I’d wear that tag like a badge of honor—any time Nutella feels like alluding to the sistas, I approve!

But now I can see where Campbell is coming from. There are certain terms for people of African descent that people of African descent are supposed to like more than others. African-American is one. But it boils down to this: We are all different. (It’s only a cliché because it’s true.) The only real commonality between people of African descent is that we are people of African descent. So perhaps we’d be better off if people asked what we prefer to be called. Or, better yet, if everyone found something other than skin color to distinguish each other by.

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