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.