Skip to main content

White rednecks and Republicans just LOVE the phrase “African-American” because they were never comfortable saying “black” in the first place.

One day when I was about 13, I was having a thoughtful conversation with a black college student and described someone as a “colored guy.”  He quickly responded, “What color?”

Shortly after I moved to the Bay Area in 1999, then-Mayor Willie Brown of SF got in trouble for calling someone a “white boy.”  I sent a letter expressing agreement, applauding the mayor for his candor and direct word choice.  I added, “I’m a white boy who’s not ashamed to admit it, and I’m glad you’re willing to call a spade a spade.”

           As a child in the South, I observantly called black people black people.  That is until I was corrected by my mother sometime around 1962.  She said, “It’s not nice to call people black, we say “colored.”  Mom had joined the NAACP in college and knew about these things.  I’d been told that black wasn’t a color, but she assured me that this was the proper nomenclature for dark skinned people, regardless of where exactly they were on the color spectrum.  That part made sense.

            Dissonance struck me whenever I watched the news and heard the word “negro” in popular use. I was told that either was correct but that colored was more polite, so I stuck with that until about age 13.  At that point in history, MLK had been killed in my hometown and my defining experience became having my Bar Mitzvah in Memphis just five weeks after the tragedy.  One day, I was having a thoughtful conversation with a black college student and described someone as a “colored guy.”  He quickly responded, “What color?”  That dialogue repeated itself a few times until I used “black” to refer to all people of color, regardless of their actual skin tone on the spectrum.  So it turned out my childhood perception was correct all along – HA!

            White rednecks and Republicans just LOVE the phrase “African-American” because they were never comfortable saying “black” in the first place.  So whichever wordy sociologists came up with that in the 80’s did them a huge favor.  My primary objection to this usage arises from editorial matters.  My #1 editorial guideline for students and clients: “Economy of Phrasing” – that is, say the most you can with as few words as possible.  (Just the opposite of most undergraduate writing.)  So let’s count the syllables:

            -African-American: 7

            -Black: 1

            The results are in and the numbers don’t lie.  Then there is the matter of actual country of origin.  Black people from the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe sometimes find this objectionable and patronizing.  Yeah, we all started somewhere and not necessarily the same place.

            One night, I overheard a conversation at the next table.  A black woman was holding court with friends and family and talking very loudly.  She repeatedly referenced herself and others as “African-Americans.”  Then the topic turned to someone else and she said, “ . . . the Caucasian woman . . .”  I wanted to interrupt and say, “Why don’t you just say ‘white girl’.”  But I didn’t.  This illustrates that if you can’t say black, you can’t say white.

           Black men used to get furious if referred to as “boy” and with good reason.  It was used as a demeaning term, implying that black men could never be men.  I’ll never forget Ed Sullivan referring to young Cassias Clay as a “fine boy.”  Even at age 7, I expected “Cassias” to hit him right there, but he didn’t.  So I learned to be careful about that.  However, my involvement in high level basketball changed that.  In the 80’s black men again began calling each other boy and their friends as boys.  They got over it.            

            Then I wonder: at which point in life does a “miss” become a “maam”?  You wouldn’t call a young woman “maam.”  Nor would you risk appearing patronizing by calling a matronly woman “miss.”  But sometimes it’s a tough call, especially in that 30-40 age group, so be careful.

            It’s a Silly Language* we have, and you have to be careful how you use it or it can get you in trouble.  But please do not bore me with your gratuitous use of superfluous syllables in silly phrases like AA.  There, I cut it down, so sue me!

            Now, some full disclosure is in order.  I’m a white boy.  Shortly after I moved to the Bay Area in 1999, then-Mayor Willie Brown of SF got in trouble for calling someone a “white boy.”  I sent a letter expressing agreement, applauding the mayor for his candor and direct word choice.  I added, “I’m a white boy who’s not ashamed to admit it, and I’m glad you’re willing to call a spade a spade.”  As a younger man I was the shortest white boy to dunk. (For real.)  Boy?  Man?  Girl?  Woman?  Q: Which is correct?  A:  Don’t take it so damn seriously!  Some females get all in a snit if you say “girl” instead of woman.  But some of the best female athletes on the planet always refer to themselves as “girls” in broadcasting, journalism and conversation.  Go argue with them if you don’t like it.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site