FYI: “Black” doesn’t mean “African-American”


By Guest Contributor T. F. Charlton; originally published as Grace is Human

A couple nights ago I made an offhand comment on Twitter about the conflation of “Black” with “African American” – the two aren’t synonymous – in response to a tweet referring to Nelson Mandela, y’know, the XhosaSouth African Nelson Mandela, as “African American.” It touched off a long and really interesting conversation about race, ethnicity, and identity, which is Storified and shared below.

A conversation on blackness, ethnicity, nationality, and identity. Not in strict chronological order – somewhat rearranged so the conversation flows more logically.

Image Credit:  MastaBaba creative commons

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  • Michelle Kirkwood

    I get where you’re coming from,But I like the term “African-American” because it was invented by other African-Americans as a term we could claim for ourselves that wasn’t slapped on us by white people and everybody else on the planet. For me, “African” signifies where my ancestry is from, “American” signifies where I am now and where I’m going from here. Either “black” or African-American is fine with/can represent me,as who I am.

    • nicthommi

      Yes, but I don’t think black is an assigned term either. Or at the very least, it was in my opinion very well claimed in the late 60’s and 70’s.
      I’d have to research to be sure, but in the 60’s, the polite term was Negro, and in the Deep South, where my parents are from, people said colored. Even my late grandparents said colored.
      So the leap from Negro to Black seems to have been self-directed, and I just find African American to be inaccurate for the reasons I already mentioned.
      At any rate, both are better than slurs and because I never grew up hearing them, the others just sound very antiquated…not necessarliy slurs, but when I hear someone say “colored” I know a certain opinion is formed by me about them.
      I could be wrong, and again would need to do some digging but feel as if Afro-American also developed around the same time as Black but perhaps since it relates to a style it fell out of use.
      What I actually dislike is how non-black people seem to believe Black is a dated or insulting term and the slight pause and whisper that preceeds identifying anyone by their race…it’s not an insult to call me black b/c black is what I am and it is what means my experience in this world will be different from someone who is not black (or not perceived as black).

  • Val

    I was surprised to hear President Obama, while visiting an African country, refer to himself as an African American. I’ve never heard him use the term in reference to himself before. I’ve always heard him use the term “Black”. The news media has always referred to the President as African American but I’ve always thought him to be either Irish American or Kenyan American.

  • Azizi Powell

    While Black people living in Europe use specific references such as Black Britons, Black Italians, or Black Germans etc, it seems that since at least the early 2000s accepted collective referent for Black people born in Europe or living in Europe is “Afro-European” and/or “Afropean”. A second meaning for those same terms is a racially mixed person of Black/non-Black (usually White) ancestry who lives in or was born in Europe. Here’s a link to a recent post that I edited about that subject which includes two videos & excerpts from other online resources on that subject:

  • Azizi Powell

    Here’s one way to understand the difference between “Black” (“black”) and “African American”:

    Think about the relationship between males and people. All males are people but all people aren’t males.

    In the same way, according to the definition of that term that people in the United States use, all African Americans are Black, but all Black people aren’t African Americans.

    In other words, “African American” is a sub-set of “Black”. There are far more Black people in the world than there are African Americans.

    For the most part, “Black” refers to people with some Black African descent, although people can debate what “Black African descent” means. I wrote “for the most part” because there are Black people in the world-in Australia, in India, in Melanesia etc- who aren’t of Black African descent…but, if you go back far enough, everybody is of Black African descent.

    For various reasons, some African Americans (Black Americans) don’t like the referent “Black”. However, I consider “Black” (spelled with either a capital “B” or a lower case “b”) to be an informal referent for the population of people who up to the mid 1960s were referred to as “Negroes” (always spelled with a capital “N”). And I consider “African American” (always spelled with capital “A”s) to be the formal referent for that population.

    Click to read a post that I wrote about “Why We Call Ourselves African Americans.”