“African-American” means “anybody of African descent”? 
Posted: 02 August 2007 02:23 PM   [ Ignore ]
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An article in The Register reminded me of a usage question. When did US English start using “African-American” as a catch-all for people of African descent, regardless of their nationality? A friend from Leicester uses “Afro-Caribbean” to describe his family, and an acquaintance of Senegalese extraction would be be mortally offended at being classified as anything other than “Parisienne”.  I’m simply wondering when this usage became common.

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Posted: 02 August 2007 03:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Blacks in America have been long in search of a term for their corner of the ethnic world.  Up until the 70s (I’m guessing) they were called (and called themselves) Negroes.  Thus the term used by Martin Luther King Jr. Before that it was “colored” which means different things in different times and places.  Then for a short while it was “Afro-American”.  I think (others will be clearer on this) it was the 80s when the term “African American” emerged--an extension, I would think of “German-American”, “Irish-American” and the like.  Like those latter terms, “African American” has some difficulties as any Black person who has gone back to Africa (or any Irish American who has gone to Ireland) can tell you.

Black [is beautiful] was use for a time in the late sixties/early seventies and, oddly, seems to be the term which has stuck in most situations today in both polite as well as more colloquial company.

Richard Wright reflecting on his own visit to the Gold Coast in Africa in 1953 was perplexed to find a tribe dancing.  “Why are they dancing?” He asked.  “Because a little girl has just died.” He asked this about 4 more times and finally shook hands and said goodbye.  Entirely perplexed by it all, Wright notes,

I had understood nothing. I was black and they were black, but my blackness did not help me.

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Posted: 02 August 2007 04:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Oecolampadius - 02 August 2007 03:46 PM

Black [is beautiful] was use for a time in the late sixties/early seventies and, oddly, seems to be the term which has stuck in most situations today in both polite as well as more colloquial company.

Based on US media, I would have to disagree, at least with regard to use in the media. As a regular watcher and reader of US-sourced news, the overwhelming winner is “African-American”. The Register article I linked to has a comment from someone who noted that Lewis Hamilton was described (incorrectly) as the first African-American to win the US Grand Prix, and as far back as the 1984 Olympics a Brazilian medallist was described as “African-American”. Even “The Daily Show” uses “African American” for “black of any nationailty”. Hence the reason for my post, since “black” appears to have been replaced by “African-American” as the term du jour, despite its obvious limitations. I don’t have access to the Oxford Corpus, so I’m interested in finding out when this change took place.

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Posted: 02 August 2007 04:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I don’t think this is an established and accepted sense of “African-American”, just a common error due to inattention.  Rote usage of “African-American” as the most PC term for black Americans, sometimes enforced by style guides or even electronic style checkers, leads to careless application.  I doubt any of the writers who commit this error would actually defend the term’s employment in reference to someone who was not in any sense an American (Othello, say, or Nelson Mandela).

However, since most people hate to admit error, I expect most of them would defend it if they had used it in reference to black Brazilians, Jamaicans, etc., (i.e., from countries in the Americas and nearby island) or to black non-US-citizens residing in the US.

[ Edited: 02 August 2007 05:08 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 02 August 2007 08:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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As usual, Dr. T has paid attention to your opening post and I did not.

Edit: The Wall Street Journal was not paying attention.  But to the point of usage…

Without checking, I think that Colin Powell is referred to, in the media, as an African American even though his genealogical route to the US comes through the Carribean.  We don’t use the term “Afro-Carribean” in the US, though I have heard it often in England.  I think that might have something to do with the British Empire in that part of the world.

So, in official communications (read: media), “African American” applies to anyone living in the US who is of African descent.  It is somewhat stilted among friends. 

In the same way, I suppose, I could refer to myself as “Irish American” even though my ancestors spent two generations in Quebec after leaving Tyrone and before entering the States.  Leaving aside for the moment the question about the geography of the word “American”, and leaving aside the difficulties I’ve referred to above.

Despite the predominance of African American in the media, the adjective “black” predominates in general conversation in the US.

[ Edited: 02 August 2007 09:04 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 03 August 2007 02:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I would say that (as usual) Dr. T. has nailed it.  I don’t think we hear the term Afro-Caribbean very much. If we hear Afro-Cuban is in reference to music.  I can’t think, off-hand, of any other sub-categories of Afro-Caribbean that we speak of here in South Leftpondia.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 02:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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’Afro-Caribbean’ is the more official term in the UK (for example on forms where you are asked to state your race (there is always a ‘prefer not to say’ box)). In my area the more usual casual term is ‘West Indian’ though I haven’t heard it that much recently so it may be out of favour, having said that the West Indies cricket team is referred to on sports programmes as the Windies. Afro-Caribbean is a more exact term for a black person from the West Indies as there are white West Indians descended from white British planters and from white convicts transported to Barbados (not sure if Britain transported convicts to any other Caribbean islands) a couple of centuries ago.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 02:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I seem to have thrown many off point by my mention of Afro-Caribbean. The point I was attempting to make in mentioning it was that it was a designation used by a friend from the UK, and is common there, being an accurate description of the majority of UK citizens with African ancestry. I mentioned it in the context of the US media’s apparent fixation (I suspect motivated by PC fear of “black") on calling EVERY black person African-American, even if they aren’t, such as the Afro-Caribbean UK citizen Lewis Hamilton.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 03:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Just for interest here is the ethnicity list from a British council/social housing application form from a couple of years ago, tick boxes were provided for answers:

White
British
Irish
Other
Mixed
White & Black Caribbean
White & Black African
White & Asian
Other
Asian/Asian British
Indian
Pakistani
Bangladeshi
Black/Black British
Caribbean
African
Other
Chinese
Other
Choose not to answer

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Posted: 03 August 2007 03:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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flynn999 - 03 August 2007 03:12 AM

White & Black African

This one made me smile. In the last couple of years NZ has seen a huge surge in refugees from Zimbabwe. The overwhelming majority of white Zimbabweans (and white South Africans here, too) only ever use “African” to mean their more melanin-rich compatriots. Calling them “African” seems an almost surefire way to offend a white Zimbabwean.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 04:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Not sure that’s quite what they meant maxqnz!

Having read it again I’ve noticed they’ve left off any mention of people of Arabic descent

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Posted: 03 August 2007 06:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Not related to the OP but rather to

Up until the 70s (I’m guessing) they were called (and called themselves) Negroes.  Thus the term used by Martin Luther King Jr. Before that it was “colored”

In the late 1950s groups of university students were attempting to get ‘Negro’ and ‘colored’ replaced with “black”.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 08:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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maxqnz:  I understood your point, and I responded to it.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 01:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Dr. Techie - 03 August 2007 08:17 AM

maxqnz:  I understood your point, and I responded to it.

Yes, and thanks. I incorporated your point about the PC nature of the usage in one of my subsequent posts. Oh what a tangled web we devise, whenever we try to categorise.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 11:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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May I throw in this quote from another list (German financial translation list):

I’m
reminded of the story told by a BBC journalist about a US television
commentator talking about the British athlete Linford Christie
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linford_Christie) and struggling with
the words to describe him. The American sports commentator ended up
referring to him as “British African-American”.

Margaret

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Posted: 04 August 2007 04:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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’Afro-Caribbean’ is the more official term in the UK (for example on forms where you are asked to state your race (there is always a ‘prefer not to say’ box)). In my area the more usual casual term is ‘West Indian’ though I haven’t heard it that much recently so it may be out of favour

I think the point here is that for a several decades after immigration to the UK from the West Indies began in 1948, the immigrants were called “West Indians” because that’s what they were. Their children and grandchildren, having been born in the UK and having full UK citizenship, cannot accurately be so described.

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