A New Understanding Of 'African-American'

The term “African-American” is not only an inaccurate description of a group, but an insulting designation of difference.

In the search for America to find a more politically correct term for black, the term “African-American” became popularized. But the complications between race, ethnicity, and nationality render the term, African-American, a completely flawed descriptor of identity. As a British-born woman who has lived in America since the age of six with a Nigerian father and Nigerian-British mother, I embody the absurdity of placing all people of darker/non-white skin under a label that relates to nationality. I may possess some of the physical characteristics that many may believe fit African Americans - despite not every black person carrying the same phenotype - but I am in no way natively American.

Too often for people of color and, in my experience, black people, the question “Where are you from?” is followed by, “Oh no, where are you really from?” Although seemingly harmless, this line of thinking reinforces the idea that black Americans are not normal Americans, an ignorant state of mind that is tied up with the term “African-American.”

If we dissect the term “African-American” for its literal meaning, we could simply say that it addresses Americans of African descent. Yet the phrase only makes sense with a smaller population than it is used to address. For first or second generation Americans whose recent ancestors originated from Africa, their household culture may be affected by their ethnicity through food, language, and stories - but for the larger part of the “African-American” population, African culture is not part of their homes. Contemporary black American culture and contemporary African culture are, unsurprisingly, quite different. In 2001, about 75% of Blacks considered themselves to be 3rd generation or upwards, meaning that there was about 75 years of disconnect between the cultures. This 75 year span left much room for new cultures to form, time in which “African-American” should have become American.

The term “African-American” is not only an inaccurate description of a group, but an insulting designation of difference. After three generations, with assimilation, many immigrant families, such as Italian, Irish, and German Americans, have reached the title of simply “American.” And when “African-American” is used to describe a race, it distinguishes black Americans from others so as to insinuate they are not purely American. The discrepancy is one that follows a long history of Americans disregarding black people as full citizens.

People are often surprised to meet someone with a background like mine, but there is a much larger group of people who do not fit the label of “African-American” that they are assigned. Many people who are considered black but who also originate from areas such as South America or Europe don’t fit the box of “African-American” either. And while black Americans should still hold pride in Africa and the path that many of their ancestors took, there is simply a blatant cultural split. For many Africans and black Americans, there is often debate on how closely the cultures are tied and who can hold certain labels, but to say that Africans and black Americans have the same history is in fact incorrect. Though they both share the burden of European oppression, the two groups are divided in their history. And while the history of slavery, segregation, and civil rights is a rough one to bear, it truly differs from the stories of decolonization of African countries as recently as 36 years ago.

Allowing “African-American” to be considered the most politically correct term is a mistake on the part of the American public. While it may fit some, the term has little resonance with others’ histories. And if America as a country wants to continue labeling humans by their skin color, then the words used to define the “race” of such a diverse group of people should become inclusive to a grander scope of people. If America wanted to take a further step forward, maybe they’d allow a Nigerian-British-American woman like myself to state what I am and accept the fact that the umbrellas of labels cannot keep the masses dry.