Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Black" Is Still Beautiful: Why I Don't Ever Want to Be Called "African-American"

The corrections. Not just the title of one of my favorite books (that Jonathan Franzen makes me so green with envy), but also a recurring theme in the 2012 Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen film The Guilt Trip and a 2011 episode of The Big Bang Theory, both of which I saw last week in-flight from Melbourne to Bangkok.

They each featured politically correct sons correcting mothers of a certain age given to using outdated terms to describe demos that are generally perceived of as having it worse than everybody else. It's hard to fault Leonard's objections to Sheldon's mom's racism with a smile (delivered as only the great Emmy-winning actress Laurie Metcalf can do it), but I'm not so sure that Barbra Streisand's endearing Jewish mother Joyce in The Guilt Trip misspoke when she said "Oriental" instead of "Asian."

I never got the memo that, as Rogen's baffled character Andy pointed out to his mom, that it's no longer okay to use "Oriental." One day it was, and the next everyone was saying "Asian." I can't recall anyone ever explaining to me why "Oriental" suddenly became a bad word, but it's been so long since I heard the term, it actually took me a little off guard when Joyce uttered it.

Not that I have a problem with it, mind you -- not any more than I object to "Asian." As terms used to describe people descended from a certain part of the world with certain physical characteristics, both "Oriental" and "Asian" are egregiously innacurate. They leave out people from India, the Middle East, the Anatolian portion of Turkey and a number of other countries that are included on the Asian continent. We now say "Native American" instead of "Indian" to describe native Americans, freeing up "Indian" exclusively for people from that country, but they're actually "Asian," too. Of course, Joyce didn't correct Andy for correcting her because, well, that would have ruined the joke.

I don't recall seeing any black people in The Guilt Trip, and I don't think I've ever seen one on The Big Bang Theory, but I don't have to wonder where Leonard and Andy stand on the subject of "African-American" vs. "Black." I'm old enough to remember when "black:" fell out of favor (after being used for decades in lieu of "negro," which itself was once a step up from "nigger"), and although it's been more than 20 years, I still can't bring myself to get used to "African-American," much less use it.

It's not that I have a problem with politically correct language. When it accurately describes what it's referring to ("physically challenged" instead of handicapped, "mentally challenged" instead of "retarded," "hearing impaired" instead "deaf," "visually impaired" instead of blind, "deceased" instead of "dead"), the terms currently in circulation often sound more elegant than the ones they replaced. "Nigger" is unacceptable, and "negro," though preferable, might be too close to "nigger." (It's also Spanish for "black," which can sometimes cause confusion and offense, as it did for my Argentine friend Mariem's ex-roommate, who used it in conversation to describe someone when she recently visited New York City, and the other person heard "nigger" instead of "negro.") But when did "black" become a dirty word? Does it still not crack? Is it no longer beautiful?

Why do "white" people still get to be called "white"? Because judging strictly from the color of their skin, their heritage can't automatically be summed up as belonging to two continents only? When used to describe black people who technically do qualify as "African-American" (more on those who don't below), I find it offensive because it qualifies their American-ness when most of them have never even been to Africa. Only European-descended whites from the U.S. get to be called simply "American," no qualifier needed. The rest of us are "African-American," "Asian-American," "Native American," "Latino."

I still cringe whenever I watch a TV procedural, and someone describes an unidentified suspect as an "African-American male," as if being black automatically means you must be from the United States, or North or South America. What does that make Naomi Campbell (who is British), Emeli Sandé (who is also British), Idris Elba (British, too), my friend Andrew (yet another Brit) and Rihanna (who is from Barbados) to people who don't know where they were born?

Or Seal, Sade, Iman and Nelson Mandela to those looking to categorize them by skin color without daring to utter that nasty B word? What did that make Bob Marley? Idi Amin? If the South African actress Charlize Theron ever has a baby with an American guy, the kid would be African-American but as white as his or her parents. Remember, not all Africans are black.

What about my mother and father, who were born, respectively, in Antigua back when it was a British colony and on the French side of Saint Martin. Are they, respectively, Anglo-Afro-American and Gallic-Afro-American? How ridiculous does that sound?

And come to think of it, where does that leave me? Yes, I'm of African descent, and I'm certainly American (in the sense of the word when "America" is used interchangeably with "The United States"), but what about everything else that I am?

To label me "African-American" overlooks my parental heritage as well as the West Indian influence that probably played the most significant role in shaping the person I am, as well as the way that I speak. Nearly 40 years after moving to the U.S. mainland, I still have my Caribbean accent, as I was reminded yesterday by a man from Glasgow.

So next time you're talking about me and you don't know my name, you can skip the political correctness. Black is as beautiful as ever, and if you must stick a label on me based on the color of my skin (which is actually closer to chocolate), I haven't heard a better one yet.
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