John McWhorter on 'African American'

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John McWhorter has changed his policy on what words to use to describe his racial group. He has used 'African American' and 'black' almost interchangeably, but now he's decided not to use 'African American' anymore and only to use 'Black'. He gives his reasons in the article why he won't use 'African American' anymore. I wonder what his reason for the change from 'b' to 'B' is. He doesn't say that. I've heard other people's, but he's a linguist, so I really want to hear his reason.

4 Comments

Jeremy, one thing I've long been curious about is why the Black / African American community changes the name they designate themselves by about every 10 years. I must admit that the choice of African American has long been unweldly and confusing. I remember back in the mid 90's Nelson Mandela being introduced as an African American because the person didn't want to say black. The whole issue of the connection and divide between Americans of distant African descent and Africans and African immigrants has always seemed problematic. Yet just as problematic is this constant sense of needing to change names. Other communities don't seem to do it, or if they do do it, they do it far more infrequently.

I suspect it is in part due to the perception of negative connotations. Yet other communities, most famously the homosexual lobby, try to "win back" terms they feel have connotations they don't like. (i.e. queer nation to adopt the pejorative term of queer)

Since you've thought about this I'd be interested in your comments.

One reason for the changes is that every word they've chosen for themselves as worth embracing has been turned into a derogatory term, or at least one that some have used in a derogatory context. That won't end unless racism does, though, so I think it's a counterproductive argument.

The gay community does something like this but not with the same track record and usually only for specific contexts, and as you noted they even use terms that had once been used negatively.

Linguistics is really a field of observation. Most black people that I know refer to themselves as "black" and seem to prefer the term when they are described by others. So I follow their own precedent.

What is so stupid about "Labeling" black people as "African Americans" is to assume that 1) all black people are from Africa (and many are not) and that all people from Africa are black (which is also false - just look at Charlize Theron or Dr. Bernhard.)

It is amazing how ignorant we are as a society to assume that just because of one's pigmentation they must be from a certain continent.

Today, one would be hard pressed to find any African American in America unless of course they were first or second generation as most "Black Americans" are a combination of many races.

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