Richard Warren Field

Internet Column

Why I’m Not Saying “African-American” Anymore

Posted on March 30, 2006

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Warren Field

That’s right. I’m not saying “African-American” anymore. And that goes for “Asian-American,” “Mexican-American” and all the other hyphenated Americans too. If this sounds harsh, if any reader of this particular column is easily distressed by assaults against the strictures of political correctness, then please refer to my last column, “Should I be Offended by the Antics of the Easily Offended?”.

The problem with “African-American” is that it is part of this “politically correct” convention of hyphenating every minority American. (And if we parse our associations and affiliations enough, we all can be members of minorities. Sure, I’m a white male. But I was born in upstate New York, transplanted to northern California, before migrating to southern California, a beard-wearer married to an ethnic Jew originally from New York. That makes me some kind of minority—a New-Yorker-bi-Californian-bearded-Judeo-Christian-by-marriage-American.)

When I was growing up, blacks were called “negroes.” No doubt, this sounded pejorative. It was way too close to the “n-word,” one of the most taboo words in the English language. The new designation, considered an important part of the move toward equality, was “black.” I prefer not to dwell on racial distinctions. (See my column “See All Colors—Be All Colors.”) But for descriptive purposes, and to discuss continuing issues and stresses in our society, we need to have words we can use to describe different groups. Blacks, whites, orientals—these sound like reasonable, inoffensive descriptive terms to me. (“Spanish-speaking,” or “of Spanish descent” seem the best possible labels for a minority group that as been described as “Chicano,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” or “Mexican-American.”) These hyphens lead to absurdities at best, and to a feeling of separateness and rivalry at worst.

Let’s address some of the absurdities of these hyphenated Americans. My wife worked for a white man who moved to the United States from South Africa a number of years ago and became a United States citizen. By the number of blacks he hired into his firm (zero), we suspect he had a prejudice against blacks. This man is absolutely accurately described as an African-American. If Charlize Theron ever decides to become an American citizen, she will be an African-American.

We also have Asian-Americans, the “politically correct” term to use for the people formerly known as “orientals.” But Asian-American could also apply to people who came here from India, Saudi-Arabia or Turkey. It could apply to a naturalized American citizen originally from Israel.

Another absurdity of the hyphenation of American blacks is that many blacks have roots that go back much farther than many non-hyphenated whites. If I was an American Black, aware of the large contribution the unpaid labor of my ancestors made to the building of this country, I would resent being a hyphenated American when second and third generation white Americans are unhyphenated.

My wife is a great example of how absurd hyphenating can get. Is she Hungarian-American? Her mother’s ancestors came from Hungary early in the Twentieth Century. And her father’s ancestors complicate matters even more. They came from the Russian section of partitioned Poland, also early in the Twentieth Century. Does that make his people Russian-American or Polish-American? Did I mention both of my wife’s parents were born Jewish? So is she Hungarian-Polish-Russian-Jewish-American? She gets impatient with all this. She considers herself an American. Period. She doesn’t want any hyphens.

What about me? On my mother’s side, we go back to the Mayflower. So am I English-American? (Can’t be British-American; there was no Britain then.) Or Pilgrim-American? Obviously I’ve been here too long to have a hyphen at all. How long does an American have to be here to lose the hyphen?

I don’t know what that number is, but I am certain American blacks, descended from slaves, have been here way too long to retain those hyphens. I do believe that hyphenating Americans is like adding a qualifier to their status, a way of saying they aren’t quite full, unqualified Americans yet. Retaining the label “African-American” perpetuates past attempts to suggest that blacks are less than full Americans. If anything, it is pejorative—it is insulting—it says “you are still different from real Americans.” So I won’t say “African-American” anymore.

Let’s drop the hyphenation of all Americans. I want all my fellow citizens to stop thinking of themselves as a hyphenated group within a group. Is this a call to forget our pasts, the diverse histories and traditions almost every American has brought from somewhere else? No. I don’t advocate a “melting pot” where our own distinct origins are homogenized into some kind of bland mush. America is not a melting pot, a porridge, or a gruel. It is a cultural all-you-can-eat buffet, a phenomenal place where cultures from every corner of the world meet and mingle without fear or inhibition. Let us gorge ourselves on the feast.


Richard Warren Field is the author of the upcoming novel, The Swords of Faith. For more information, go to RichardWarrenField.com.


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