I vividly remember a moment during my semester abroad in South Africa when I was sitting on the Jammie Steps at The University of Cape Town. I was discussing issues of race with a student who is black and South African and he asked a question I will never forget.
“Why do Americans always call black people ‘African-American’ when many are not African at all?” he asked.
I really didn’t have anything to say except, “Great question.”
From that point forward, I’ve paid special attention to the linguistic choices made by the American media when referring to race. Perhaps one of the most profound examples arrived last week with Jason Collins’ article for Sports Illustrated, which was co-authored by Franz Lidz.
Collins set a great example for the LGBT community with his coming out story last week, but what many people don’t realize is that he also helped correct the countless number of Americans who use the offensive term African-American.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center, I’m black, and I’m gay” was about as powerful of an opening line to an article as you’ll find.
And he did it right.
I learned many things while studying abroad in South Africa last year, but perhaps nothing was as important as realizing how wrong Americans can be with the linguistic choices about race. The term African-American is overused and offensive to many black people in America, yet nobody even thinks about it. This term assumes that black people are automatically from Africa when the reality is that many black Americans are not African at all. Calling a black person “African-American” without knowing whether he or she actually is from from Africa only serves to “other” black people even more by failing to recognize them as a regular Americans. It is almost like an asterisk except it replaces the asterisk with “African.”
And while we sit and realize that this term has evolved into one about race, it is difficult not to think about the Americans today who are African-American and how they feel when others call themselves African even when they are not. Or how about the African-Americans who are not black – how do they feel when this country tries to frame a term about nationality into a term about race?
Taking it one more step further, the other issue is that people cannot even argue that the term African-American can be used to classify a nationality because Africa is an entire continent making up over 50 countries. We often hear of people who are Italian-American or Canadian-American, but rarely do we ever hear of someone who is a white Zimbabwean-American. Who knew?
The impact of Jason Collins’ SI article was felt nationwide and worldwide, and his decision to describe himself as black in the opening line instead of African-American was wise and smart. The SI website had some of its highest traffic ever last week and that article helped plant some seeds in the minds of many Americans who need to rethink the words they use in describing people of other races.