For the sake of argument let’s say that there’s an ethnically Indian woman from Botswana who became an American citizen when she emigrated to the U.S. in her early adulthood. Let’s also suppose that she is from an educated background and has a middle-class professional job which, this country’s ethnic and class politics still being what they are, means that she inhabits an largely white and Asian (both South- and East-) social world. If you ask her where she’s from she says “Botswana” and when asked what she’s doing over the holidays she answers, “Going back to Africa to visit my family.” So quickly now, what should her ethnic label in this country be? How about African-American?
I’m joking of course. She would call herself Indian and explain the bit about Botswana as needed. African-American, though literally true, would be confusing because that term already means something else. There’s nothing odd about this. Language evolves by happenstance, and it’s perfectly normal for a short phrase to have a meaning different from what its component parts would indicate. (For example, here in America the game we call football only occasionally involves kicking a ball with your foot.) Nor is this an occasion to make some easy cracks about the absurdities of political correctness. It is no more absurd, for instance, than referring to a pinkish-beige colored race as “Caucasian” even though only a tiny fraction of its members actually hail from between the Black and Caspian seas. Still there is a political lesson bound up in this bit of nomenclature, and it’s one that illuminates parts of the American landscape that may be changing as we speak.
It is not difficult to understand why “African-American” would not apply the my hypothetical Botswanan. The term, while appearing to make some kind of geographic distinction, is really about race, and as such excludes Indians. Easy enough.1 The tricky part happens when we start to talk about people who do belong to the designated racial category. For instance, in the past fifteen years or so the Seattle area has seen a lot of emigration from East Africa. Eritreans play pick-up soccer games in public parks, Amharic script decorates restaurants and churches, second-generation Somali girls in colorful head scarves chatter away on cell phones, and so forth. These people are Americans and they or their parents are from Africa. They also all belong to the perceived-as-looking-more-like-Al-Roker-than-Maury-Povich segment of America’s racial mosaic. But one hesitates to call them African-Americans. I find that Seattleites refer to “East Africans” if they don’t know where a group of people is from, “Ethiopians/Eritreans/Somalis” if they do, and “Africans” on the off chance that one of the group might be from Nigeria. Here as elsewhere, “African-American” does not just refer to a racial group, but a subset of that group descended from West African slaves whose families have a longer history in North America than that of most whites, much less some guy who came over from Addis Ababa in 1998. The statement “Africans have only recently begun moving to Seattle” is true while “African-Americans have only recently begun moving to Seattle” is false because Seattle’s Central District has been a black neighborhood for generations.
So now we find ourselves backed into a corner where the racial designation “African-American” cannot refer to Americans who are from Africa, even when they look the part. Surely this is an absurdity that can be laid at the feet of political correctness? To some extent, yes. There’s always going to be fraught politics around the terms for marginalized groups2, which is why we’ve cycled through “Negro”, “black”, and “African-American” in a little over a generation while ethnic Europeans have remained white-white-white for as long as anyone can remember. I recall the last shift as being an attempt to emphasize the centrality of black experience in American culture by analogy with European immigrant nomenclature like “Irish-American” or “Italian-American”, and while I admire the end I think the means are ill-considered. For starters, hyphenated-American constructions have always sounded defensive to me. They seem to insist that whatever group precedes the hyphen is just as good as “real” Americans. (Which would make “African-American” an insistance that African-Americans are just as good as white people, which is the wrong way to fight that battle.) Also, my sense is that outside of ultra-polite formal contexts, no one actually says [European Ethnic Group]-American. It’s most natural for me to say that I went to high school with a lot of Italians and leave it to context to differentiate between fourth-or-so-generation suburban Philadelphians and the one exchange student who was actually from Italy. To unnecessarily haul out the hyphen sounds prissy and affected.
At its worst, the term “African-American” reduces the whole of the African continent to “that place the black people come from” and racial essentialization seems like it should remain the provence of the bad guys, but looked at from a specifically American point of view there’s a historical honesty to this particular simplification. Hyphen or no, the black experience is central to American culture. And here the black experience means–just off the top of my head–slavery, the South, the Civil War, Protestantism, the Montgomery bus boycott, blue notes, Roots, Richard Pryor, Jay-Z, and even Barack Obama, to the extent that he is not just some technocratic quasi-foreigner who grew up in Indonesia. It is not merely a racial category but a specific set of historical conditions about a very specific group of people. Strictly speaking, it is provincial for Americans to equate this very particular aspect of our history with merely looking like you might be able to trace your recent ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, but a little provincial is what we are like. And the experience of this group of people is so central to American culture as a whole that you can see why there’d be a bit of terminological overreach. What remains to be seen as the United States begins its first large scale cultural contact with Africa since the middle passage, is what part of that equation will persist.
1 Taken this way, the anecdote I heard recently about a TV sports announcer who referred to an “African-American runner from France” merely illustrates that the line between error and language evolution is a fine one and always shifting.
2 A musician who studied Django Reinhardt-style guitar playing with gypsies in the Netherlands tells me that they were fine with being called “gypsies” and “Sinti” (the term for their particular north European subgroup) but were very touchy about being referred to as “Roma” for reasons he was never able to ascertain.