What's in a name?

By Carol / February 9, 2012 /

Negro. Black. Colored. People of Color. African-American.

Having spent my career in the public relations world, and considering myself reasonably sensitive in any case, I’ve always tried to be mindful of using the terminology groups of people prefer to describe themselves. Because the terminology changes regularly within the black community – and because it’s all so politically charged – I’ve often felt as though I’m walking on eggshells, uncertain whether I’m using the right term of the moment.   

A recent article written by Jesse Washington for the Associated Press addressed the changing attitudes among young black people on this topic. According to the article, increasingly, young black people are shunning the term African-American. Census figures show that 1 in 10 black people in America is born abroad. So the slave ancestry connotation of African-American is at the least inaccurate and possibly even offensive.

I was dismayed to learn from a prominent black educator that some in the black community are offended when any black person who cannot prove slave ancestry adopts the term African-American to describe themselves.  Rather than bring people together, the labeling is used as a wedge to drive apart. But then, maybe for some, that’s the point.

We have seen that in the political arena. Both Alan Keyes and Herman Cain used slave ancestry as a mark of differentiation against President Obama. The not-so-subtle implication that the President isn’t black enough or American enough.

But then such tactics are used often, regardless of race, to declare oneself ‘in’ and someone else ‘out.’  

The more generations that pass since their ancestors left Africa, the more tenuous the connection some may feel.  One young man, Gibr George of Miami, interviewed for the AP article said, “Are we always going to be tethered to Africa? Spiritually I’m American. When the war starts, I’m fighting for America.”

All the terms, all the labels, had a purpose. They meant something in our society at the time. Perhaps moving us all along, maybe to greater awareness, pride, sensitivity, hopefully to greater cohesiveness but perhaps to greater separateness.

I know words matter. I know names matter. But I’m with Gibr George – Couldn’t we all just be Americans? I hope I live to see that day.

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