Cultural identity has long been a topic of discussion in America. For Black Americans who descended from slaves, that identity was always chosen for them. From terms like “negro” to “colored”, Black Americans have often been labeled by the majority.
So let’s take a look at the timeline of ethnic labels in America
1800s- “Negro” was deemed to be the proper English-language term for people of black African origin.
1890 Census: Blacks were asked to choose among four ethnic labels: black, mulatto, quadroon and octoroon, depending upon the degree of white blood in their ancestry.
1988- Reverend Jesse Jackson held a press conference with the agenda that Black people should be referred to as African-American citing, “To be called African-Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African- Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”
1989- In a survey that year conducted by ABC and The Washington Post, 66 percent said they preferred the term Black, 22 preferred African-American, 10 percent liked both terms and 2 percent had no opinion.
2000- the Census Bureau for the first time allowed respondents to check a box that carried the heading African-American next to the term Black
2010- the US Census Bureau included “Negro” on the US Census, citing older African-Americans still identify themselves this way.
2011: In a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of respondents said they preferred black, 35 percent said African-American, 13 percent said it doesn’t make any difference, and 7 percent chose “some other term.”
2014- US Army removed the term “Negro” from new regulations that described Black or African-American personnel
Slate changes it’s standard from African-American to black American
Around the time of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign he also campaigned for black Americans to adapt the term “African-American” as an identifier.
“Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”
President Barack Obama weighed in on his choice to identify as African-American, citing his Kenyan background:
“Some of the patterns of struggle and degradation that blacks here in the United States experienced aren’t that different from the colonial experience in the Caribbean or the African continent. For me, the term African-American really does fit. I’m African, I trace half of my heritage to Africa directly and I’m American.”
Identifying as Black-American
The African diaspora has been in America since at least the 1500s. In relation to cultures that are millenia years old, Black Americans are still very new on the scene and defining who they are. And more and more people are concluding that the ‘African American’ label is incorrect. These Black American writers weighed in on why they choose to identify as Black over African-American:
“Being black in America does not make you African-American. Being black and African-American are not mutually inclusive descriptors that hold true for every person of color.”
“I have never been offended by the use of ‘African American,’ but personally there a few reasons I don’t particularly like the term. I have used it in my writing when making efforts to be politically correct, or as an alternative reference to Black people. Yet I have always viewed it as just that: a politically correct alternative to Black. Never something I whole-heartedly embraced. I have checked it on applications, but never used it to self-identify in real-life. It has always felt forced, redundant, and quite frankly, inaccurate. Using the term ‘African American’ feels like using Kente cloth made in China trying desperately to authenticate myself. In theory I know where I’m from, but in actuality I wasn’t made there.”
“He is from Nigeria. From what I hear, it’s a beautiful country full of culture, pride, and history. He came to this country almost 20 years ago and became an American citizen along the way. He is very proud to be African-American. And I am proud for him. But our story is not the same. He arrived in this country by choice and on a plane. My people arrived in an involuntary manner via boat ride.”
“It’s time we descendants of slaves brought to the United States let go of the term “African American” and go back to calling ourselves Black — with a capital B.
Modern America is home now to millions of immigrants who were born in Africa. Their cultures and identities are split between Africa and the United States. They have last names like Onwughalu and Senkofa. They speak languages like Wolof, Twi, Yoruba and Hausa, and speak English with an accent. They were raised on African cuisine, music, dance and dress styles, customs and family dynamics. Their children often speak or at least understand their parents’ native language.
Living descendants of slaves in America neither knew their African ancestors nor even have elder relatives who knew them. Most of us worship in Christian churches. Our cuisine is more southern U.S. than Senegalese. Starting with ragtime and jazz, we gave America intoxicating musical beats based on African conceptions of rhythm, but with melody and harmony based on Western traditions.”
Foreign-Born Blacks Enter the Naming Debate
“Some immigrants and their children prefer to be called African or Nigerian-American or Jamaican-American, depending on their countries of origin. Other people prefer the term black, which seems to include everyone, regardless of nationality.”
Angelique Shofar, the Liberian-born host of a weekly radio program in Washington called “Africa Meets Africa,” prefers to call herself an African, even though she has lived in the United States for 28 of her 39 years.
Phillip J. Brutus, the first Haitian-born state legislator in Florida, favors the term Black because it includes foreign-born immigrants and Black Americans. Brutus lives in Miami, where more than a third of the Blacks are foreign born. “African-American has become the politically correct term to use, but I still say Black,” Brutus said. “I say I’m Black and American. That’s what’s most accurate. I think, by and large, Black is more encompassing.”
Labeling Makes an Economic Difference
In 2014, The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published the results of a study conducted by Emory University’s Erika Hall which identifies significant difference of public perception based on which of the widely acceptable terms — Black or African American — is applied. The result? White people favored “African-American over black.”
Essentially we gave half of our white American participants an application for that read that a person was Chicago it had their address and the only difference between the two application forms we randomly assigned people to is that one had race listed as ‘African American’ and the other had race listed as ‘black.’ We noticed that white Americans rated the black applicant as having lower status as being less educated, having a lower income and less likely to be in a managerial position.
Labeling Shapes Sympathy in Crime
Hall also tested a theory with the high profile case of Trayvon Martin and noted that the term “African-American” did not illicit much sympathy because of the assumption of a higher socioeconomic status:
With the Trayvon Martin study that we did, we evaluated a black or African American victim and this changes things totally around. Because if that victim is perceived to be low socioeconomic status or disadvantaged or needed help then you’re more likely to have empathy for that victim than an African American victim which is perceived to be higher socioeconomic status and not in need of that help. When Trayvon Matrin was described as a black teenager then people were more favorable to his case than when he was described as an African American teenager. Furthermore they were more likely to say that Zimmerman was guilty when Trayvon Martin was described as a black teenager than when he was described as an African American teenager.
Of course you have some folks who want to drop the “African” part altogether and solely identify as “American” like Whoopi Goldberg and Raven Symone.
Although the idea of removing a race/ethnicity identifier isn’t shared by many Black Americans, the reasoning behind it this stems from the extensive generational ties Black Americans share to the country. America, as we know it was built on the backs of Black Americans for more than three centuries. Let’s not forget the additional 100 years of legal segregation and blatant institutionalized racism which proceeded immediately after the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Where do you stand on this issue? How do you choose to identify?