I’ve often heard people say things like, “I wonder when people are going to stop calling me African-American and just start referring to me as an American.”
I never quite got the true significance of that sentiment until very recently.
First though, I want to just say a bit about “Politically Correct” terminology. It’s fucking stupid, lol. There are a number of reasons why I don’t necessarily like the term “African-American”, but, is there a better term?
My <sarcasm>lovely</sarcasm> father still refers to them as “the blacks”, which, I know he means well, but my black friends get incredibly offended by this. I don’t even like calling referring to these people as “black people”. It’s got a weird ring to it. So, that pretty much leaves me with zero choices for a word to use when I am trying to refer to that particular demographic.. which, when you really think about it, is there ever an appropriate reason to be making comments about a specific demographic at all?
People are individuals. There are extremely few cases where you can make a statement that applies to every single person belonging to a specific demographic that doesn’t also apply to the rest of humanity.
I was thinking once about how we¹ have these terms “African-American” and “Native-American” and how they are related. There’s also the term “Asian-American”, which I hear sometimes, but is hardly as common as the first two. So, following this trend, it would be perfectly natural to call white people “European-Americans”. But I don’t ever hear anyone use the term “European-American”.
Basically, one of the first ways people start subdividing “Americans” is to categorize them by their continent or origin. Sure, the “Native Americans” came over from Asia via the land bridge, but that was so long ago they’ve evolved to be significantly different enough from other Asian-Americans, and since they were the first people here that we know about, we call them the natives. Pretty much everyone else gets labeled by which continent they came from, unless they came here from Europe. This is another example of where white western ethnocentric viewpoints are hard-written right into the structure of our very language. “American” just means someone living in America. Once you start breaking it down by race/continent of origin, “American” then defaults to “European-American”, implying that they are the most important or primary group of interest. Everyone else requires a qualifier, such as “African-“, “Asian-” or “Native-“, but European-Americans are just “Americans”. Wtf? It seems to me that, if anything, the people who were here first would get the default standard setting and everyone who came later would require a qualifier to specify how they’re different from the default setting. But *sigh*, such is our culture…
Going even further into this ethnocentric view, I mentioned that I’ve pretty much never heard the term “European-American”, but what I have heard occasionally are terms such as “German-American”, “Irish-American”, “British-American”, “Russian-American”, etc. So for everybody else, we describe them by their continent of origin, but with European-Americans, we break it down by country. Ethnocentric as @#$%! It could be argued that many African-Americans have no way of knowing which country their ancestors came from, and that many white people still can’t seem to tell the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese person (or that there are other countries in Asia), but the implications of these statements really don’t reflect positively on our society at all: It may be a way of explaining why things are the way they are, but it certainly does not justify them.
Going back to our indigenous friends for a moment, a common term for Native-Americans is “Indians”, and to be quite frank I really don’t like the connotations of that term either. It hails from a time when Christopher Columbus thought he was in India, and evokes not only his stupidity but also the horror of the genocide and slavery he and his people subsequently carried out. However, there are numerous organizations such as the AAIA and NCAI that still use the term “American Indian” right in their name, and this is still considered a politically correct term for these people.
Then I started thinking about the word “American” itself. It’s really a poor way to describe what you mean. North and South America are huge continents, comprising 36 countries. Why aren’t Canadians Americans? They live in the Americas. Why aren’t people from Brazil Americans? Or Mexico or Chile or Guatemala..etc.
And yes, I know most of you “Americans” don’t see the difference or why anyone would be upset that you’re the only country in the Americas that gets to call themselves Americans, but trust me, the entire rest of the world is not only confused by this but they think it is idiotic.
But really, there aren’t any other single-word adjectives for “people from the United States of America”, so, even though the terms we do have to describe these things are horribly flawed, we don’t really have any other choices.
These trains of thought left me to conclude that 100% of our terminology for various demographics is just FUBAR. The vast majority of it is offensive to at least someone (if not everyone) and are totally illogical if you think about where they came from. Even the term “black people” is a misnomer; their skin isn’t black, it’s just a darker brown than most other people.
But anyway, more about this idea of “European-Americans”…
A friend of mine recently was just pointing out how some of the earliest forms of racism in this country were against the Irish, and also the Polish, Finns, Russians, Italians, and on and on the list goes. I was about to say that some of the only people who probably never really got it were the Germans and the British, but it became incredibly uncool to be German around the time of the World Wars, and even those people of British ancestry get flack because of the Revolutionary War. In the area where I grew up, the people of German descent still love to rip on the people of French descent, but um, that area is a good 100 or 200 years behind the times in just about every area of import, so that doesn’t really surprise me.
My friend’s take on the matter was that only once there was a sizable number of other races in this country to hate on did all of the various “European Americans” gang up under a single identity and no longer really feel the need to differentiate themselves from one another. As long as there is an “Us vs Them” mentality, human beings will always find ways to separate and classify themselves, and hatred and stereotypes are sure to follow. Even in a racially homogenous society, people will still find ways to further differentiate themselves based on identity: gender, sexuality, belief system, age, income level, profession, height, hair or even eye color.
Essentially, I feel it’s total bullshit that “white Americans” feel the need to identify themselves as the norm and come up with different words for every other demographic out there (we have a word for you too, you White Anglo Saxon Protestants). But then again, it kind of makes sense that it’s like this. If you look at the etymologies of various names of countries in other languages, it is amazing how often the name of the country in their language comes from their word for “people” and the names of the surrounding countries are derived from things like “those other people” or “foreigners”.
But at the same time, aren’t we trying to evolve past a tribal mentality and cast off the shackles of traditions that no longer apply to our current state in such a way that reflects tolerance, compassion, empathy and understanding?
And so I’ll just leave you with this little gem: Avenue Q – Everybody’s A Little Racist
¹ the term “we” in this article is referring to common speech patterns found among the people currently speaking English in the U.S.A., as recognized by linguists, dictionaries, and heard in the formal media. It does not necessarily mean that I or you or even anyone you know do these things or think this way, but as of the time of this writing, many people do and (for better or worse) it is considered common.