By Austin Kaluba -
What is the right and polite term for our kind since every salutation has racist connotations?
Consider the often quoted words Nigger, Negro, black or African. They all have a varying degree of insult with the word Nigger considered the most insulting and black being less insulting.
With racism being rife wherever blacks and whites live together, there seem not to be a polite word for a black man that is free of subtle racist connotation.
This explains why even among ourselves in Africa, the word African can be insulting. For example the phrase ‘Stop being African!’ is commonly used to mean ‘Stop being primitive.’
At one time it was normal to use the term black in the United States, especially during the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s and early 70’s.
To call yourself black at that time was a radical assertion for racial equality in wake of a slowly crumbling white supremacist power structure.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the term African-American became popular at the public urging of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
His idea was that black Americans should be able to identify themselves with a land base, putting us on the same level of cultural identity as Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and so on.
Now the term African-American is shunned in favour of what many consider to be polite salutations like American.
According to M.G. Piety, who is editor and translator and teaches philosophy at Drexel University, the expression “African-American” is patronising, condescending, and racist.
She argues that it was coined to help counteract the corrosive effect of racism on the self-esteem of black Americans.
She points out that referring to black people as “African-American,” is effectively reminding them that they should not feel too at home in America because, really, they are only half American.
Understandably, most black Americans do not identify with Africans and most genuine African-Americans (i.e., people who recently emigrated from Africa to the US or who divide their time between two continents) do not identify with black American tag.
The Nigerian award-winning writer Chimamanda Adichie explained in response to a question about what race she had in mind when someone was referred to simply as “American,” saying it “is a mark that culture leaves, never a physical description.”
She said that when she went to the US she did not want to be identified with black Americans and even “recoiled” when a man in Brooklyn referred to her as “sister.” I’m not your sister, she thought to herself. I have three brothers and I know where they are, and you’re not one of them!
She said she did not identify with black Americans, that she did not understand their experiences.
Her friends, she explained, when she first went to the US as a university student, were other foreign students.
She felt she had more in common with them than she had with black Americans and suspected this feeling was shared by most Africans on their first encounter with the US.
However, for most blacks in the US, this explanation only works on one surface since on another it explains how blacks in US and the West Indies strive to disassociate themselves from Africa, a continent that has been painted as a hopeless one.
Professor Kwame Dawes, from Ghana, who grew up in Jamaica has written a short story “Passport Control” about his experience in Jamaica with fellow blacks.
Writing about his problems in a Jamaican school, he writes, “My difference posed problems because children decided to try out their knowledge of Africa, well gleaned from authoritative sources like Tarzan movies, Hollywood films like The African Queen, Phantom comics, and very reliable information from older brothers and sisters who had seen things in magazines and on television about Africans, about their way of life and about their abject savagery. So I was tested: Did I ever see a tiger, an elephant, a cheetah, a lion, a chimpanzee…? Did I like to wear clothes? Did I see women’s titties out a door all the time? Did I ever meet the Phantom?” He embarked on a campaign of re-education, which he found was futile. To survive it was best to lie. If he told the truth he was called a liar.
Recently Whoopi Goldberg, the black comedian-actress caused some debate when she told Raven Symone a co-host on “The View” not to be called an African-American.
Whoopi was quoted saying “This is my country. My mother, my grandmother, my great grand folks, we busted ass to be here. I’m sorry. I’m an American. I’m not an African American! I’m not a chick American. I’m an American!”
Other black celebrities refuse to be called ‘black.’ When Tiger Woods was called the first African American to win the Masters, he corrected the journalists by arguing that it was a mistake to characterise him simply as “black,” a remark that brings into sharp focus the debate over how the increasing number of mixed-race Americans are seen and categorised.
“Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m a `Cablinasian,’ “ Woods said during a taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” He said the name best captures his racial makeup: a blend of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian.
Woods’ comments stirred argument among academics, civil-rights leaders and, particularly, those from mixed ancestries: Are the racial categories Americans used to define themselves becoming outdated by a changing demographic portrait?
The long history of racial classifications in America started in 1790 with the categories “free white male,” “free white female” and “slave.”
But those census classifications have changed with the times, and in 1820, terminology included “free white” and “free colored.”
“Mulatto” was coined in 1850, followed in 1870 by “quadroon” and “octoroon,” to provide exacting measures of someone’s black heritage.
For generations, American society defined people as black if they had even “one drop” of black blood.
That point was illustrated most famously by Homer Plessy, the man who was arrested in 1896 after he refused to leave a train car reserved for whites.
He took that case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that segregation was indeed constitutional.
Whatever racial classification, whites come up with it belies racism that is deeply imbedded in our society and refuses to die no matter what efforts are made to eradicate it.
On this one I agree with Oprah Winfrey who once said that “for racism to end, racists must die“.
Winfrey; the first Black female billionaire, also blamed “racism” for “disrespect” of President Obama, though she would as Obama is presenting her with “the medal of freedom”, the highest medal a US civilian can receive.
She also said “People are terrorised because of the color of their skin, because of the color of their black skin.”, and that “there are still generations of people, older people (White people), who were born and bred and marinated in it – in that prejudice and racism – and they just have to die.”