Saturday, November 08, 2008


Black and white

About a week ago, NPR had an item about the then-candidates’ campaigns in Florida. Don Gonyea talked with some Obama supporters in Sunrise, not far from where I grew up:

Don Gonyea: Seated two sections over was 57-year-old Joan Benn[?], who was born in Guyana, but who has been a U.S. citizen for 30 years. As an African American, she says she always hoped she’d see what she’s seeing now; she just didn’t think it was possible so soon. She thinks an Obama presidency would restore America’s global reputation.

Joan Benn: The world would look at us in a different way, and a different level. I think it’s good for our children, and my grandchildren, to see a black president.

Now, in case you’re not sure, Guyana is here, in South America. It used to be called British Guiana, and it’s next to Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), Venezuela, and Brazil. It’s not in Africa.

I don’t know whether Ms Benn (and I’m sorry if I’m getting her name wrong, but NPR didn’t spell it) does or doesn’t prefer the term “African American” for herself, but I suspect her own reference to “a black president” is a strong clue. In any case, I’ve known a number of dark-skinned people who hail from South America and the Caribbean who are quite bothered by it. In the words of a Jamaican friend of mine, “I am Jamaican; I am not African.”

Of course, her ancestry might be traceable to Africa within the last few centuries, but the question comes down to how one identifies oneself, compared with a hyper-political-correctness that drives our media to pick a term that has to “fit all”. When the movie Pocahontas came out in the mid‘90s, I read a newspaper article that said that Disney had engaged as a consultant “an American Indian (the term [he] prefers)”. They went on to refer to him as a Native American for the rest of the article.

I’ve also seen references in the U.S. news to, say, Algerians living in France, or Nigerians in England, as “African Americans”, even though they might be talking about people who’ve never set foot on our shores.

Ideally, we wouldn’t characterize people unnecessarily, and when it is significant and needs characterization, we ought to use the subject’s own preference when we can — and use some common sense, rather than bleat like sheep.

Dark-skinned“African American”. That ought to be as plain as black and white.


Ray said...

I believe I mentioned to you earlier this year the headline on the Poughkeepsie Journal sports pages concerning the first-ever "African American Champion Formula One Driver".

This upset me for several reasons, not the least of which were that (a) he is not American (he was born, and has always lived, in England), and (b) his heritage is British and West Indian, not African. I wrote a letter to the PoJo, which they published, but which evoked no other response.

I just looked at Hamilton's Wikipedia entry, and was struck by his similarity to Barack Obama. Further reading of the entry reveals that he, too, has a white mother and black father - perhaps this is a winning combination :-)

Ray said...

That would be Lewis Hamilton, by the way.

W.M. Irwin said...

Barry, your article points in a direction that I have pondered about for some time. I don't think that "race" has any scientific validity in itself; whether someone is called one thing or another is overwhelmingly a matter of perception, not objective fact. All of the issues and problems of our day concerning "race" arise from how people perceive themselves and others racially, not from how they really are. So your common sense idea of respecting how others want to be called fits totally with my take on the subject. I prefer designations like "African-American" because descendants of slaves in America were denied the ethnic identification that free immigrants were privileged to, even if they were escaping persecution in other countries. And steering people away from terms like "black" and "white" would ultimately be a good idea as well, especially seeing that we are all pretty much just various shades of "brown" and not members of clearly-defined groups. So I refuse to see Barack Obama, for example, as being of "mixed race" (which seems nonsensical to me). But since he accepts the designation of "African-American" for himself, then that's cool with me.

Barry Leiba said...

And, of course, President Obama is an African American who is not a descendant of slaves. There are all sorts of variables, so why do we have to put people into pigeon holes?

Your comment reminds me of the original Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, in which Frank Gorshin and Lou Antonio are of two different races from another planet, and are at war with each other. The crew can't figure out the racial difference at first — they both have faces that are black on one side and white on the other — until Gorshin points out that one of them is black on the left, and the other is black on the right.

Lisa Simeone said...

I'm sticking with black. As a child of the '60s, when "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!" was the rallying cry, I see nothing wrong with it. I think "African-American" is ponderous, protracted, and p.c. (By the way, I also remember "Afro-American," which means the exact same thing and which at least had the virtue of being shorter, but which because of yet another p.c. twist of fate has fallen out of favor.)

I second the reasons already outlined here why "African-American" doesn't even make sense in many contexts. My friend Adiante, a woodcarver from Suriname, will set you straight right quick if you call him African-American. And there are many other arguments in favor of retaining "black" and "white" -- and of the scientific validity of the concept of race -- that would take many pages of explication, not appropriate, it seems to me, for a comments thread.

(Oh, and Russell Means and the other stalwart folks of AIM balk at being called "Native American." "American-Indian" is just fine by them. As Means will be quick to point out, all of us who were born in this country are "native American.")