“Black” or “African American” — Which is More Appropriate?

Terms limit — and liberate — our identities. A young woman explores the power of words.

13 mins read

A version of this article was originally published in The Shakerite, the student newspaper of Shaker Heights High School, in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

I’m Black, but on applications and resumes, I’m African American. When I’m talking with my friends, I always say Black. I say Blackin class, and I say Blackto adults regardless of their status. I can’t remember the last time I said African American, besides when I was interviewing people for this story and asked which term they preferred.

Word choice may seem trivial, but to a lot of people, it can mean a lot. Those who are the default in our society — white, straight, male —  don’t need to think as much about the way that they define themselves and are defined by the world. But for the rest of us, the words that identify us can completely change how others understand our identities.

For centuries, the official term used to describe Black Americans has yet to be agreed upon; however, as many terms have become outdated and inappropriate, we have landed among two: Should we be called Black or African American?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Illustration: Alona Miller

In writing this story, I came to like the idea of using African American. I love the idea of using the term to assert common ground for all Black Americans because we’re all American people with African roots. But it’s not always so clear-cut.

Regarding the diaspora — which refers to people of African descent who live everywhere — I think Black is the better term to use. There are Black people all over the world, and they aren’t American.

This whole debate is, as entrepreneur Andrea Campbell said, “one big identity crisis.”

I live in Shaker Heights, which is a unique place. It’s an affluent suburb outside of Cleveland known for its early commitment to diversity. Over the years, Shaker has drawn people of all different racial, economic, and religious backgrounds, and on paper it’s a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. But when you look around the school, its segregation is apparent. The community tries to take steps to achieve these goals, one of those steps being frequent, open discussion on the topic of race. It was easy to collect opinions and perspectives about the Black vs. African American debate because it’s what we do at Shaker. We talk about race.

When Dr. David Glasner, superintendent, sent an email on Sept. 10, 2019, that stated the district’s intent to focus on “Black students excellence,” he put the district on the side of those who prefer the term Black.

Glasner said that Shaker has begun using the term Black rather than African American in its publications, because the state uses the term Black in its assessments. “That may not be the most intellectually rigorous decision, but we wanted to be consistent with the state terminology,” Glasner said.

Evolving language for identifying Black people is not a new phenomenon. Over the last century, Black people have chosen terms ranging from colored to negro to Black to African American, only to reject some of them later. And while the district’s decision was practical, the choice of an identifying term is much more complicated for Black people.

MAC (Minority Achievement Committee) Sister Scholars adviser Tracy Williams has experience with each of these terms.

“I’m one of those people whose grandmother or great-grandmother might have been colored. My parents, on their birth certificates, were Negro,” she said.

When Williams was in school, Afro-American was the term. Then Black took over.

“And then, in the ’80s, Jesse Jackson and some other leaders at some point decided on African American,” she said.

Jackson, a civil rights activist, promoted the use of the term African American in the late 1980s as a way for Black people to come to terms with their enslaved past and to embrace their African heritage.

Not everyone wants to be called African American. For some, the term does not adequately portray their heritage. More than 40 million Black people live in the United States, but not all of them have African heritage, and the majority of Black people worldwide have no American ancestry.

Williams said thatAfrican American only applies to Black people living in America, but Blackcan describe all Black people. “I prefer Blackbecause it’s the term that I grew up with and because, for me, it’s an umbrella term that accounts for the entire diaspora, as well as people who are mixed or multiracial but identify with their African American heritage,” she said, “because we’re everywhere.”

Sophomore Ethan Bryant prefers Black, too. “Why should we be called African American if none of us have ever been to Africa, and most of our ancestors were born in America?” he said.

Some of those who prefer Black say African American is overly sensitive. “I feel that people will say African American in order to not sound racist, and so they tip-toe around the word Black. But I prefer Black because I am Black,” Shaker graduate Felecia Hamilton (’18) said. 

Junior Jacqueline Johnson said that she has noticed someone starting to say Blackand then switching to African American. “It’s kind of weird. Like, it doesn’t offend anyone if you say African American or Black, because it’s basically the same thing. I think they feel like it’s a more respectful way to say Black,” she said.

Sophomore Will Votruba, who is white, said that saying African American seems more racist. “I don’t know why, but it just seems worse. We don’t say, European-Americans, so yeah, I say Black. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying Black.”

Senior Madison Peebles uses the terms interchangeably depending on her environment. “In a school setting, I’m an African American student, somewhere formal. But when I’m, like, chilling somewhere, I’m Black. It just depends on where you are,” she said. 

Denise Harrison, a professor of Pan-African studies at Kent State University, described  a situation in which a person’s word choice could be taken offensively. “There are times when somebody says, ‘That Black guy,’ and it’s kind of a pejorative term, the way they’re saying it, or, ‘He was African American,’ where that person’s racial identity doesn’t really tell you anything.

“In those instances, I think that’s problematic,” she said.

Harrison said she raises this subject in class every year. “I talk to students about this, especially our students not of color, who oftentimes don’t know what to say. I had an honors class where I just had to have the students say, ‘African Americans, African Americans, Blacks, Blacks’ because they were so uncomfortable,” she said. She advises those students to ask people what identifying term they use themselves, in the same way that people do for transgender and nonbinary people.

On the other hand, some who prefer to be called African American say that Black is too harsh. “There’s always been this tension in the Black community around owning Black, but then also, as people who speak English, the negative connotations that go with the word Black,” Williams said.

The Oxford English Dictionary documents nine senses of the word black. They include some definitions that are neutral: the color, any group of dark-skinned people, a kind of tea or coffee, a challenging ski run. Others, however, are negative: evil, wicked, foul, calamitous, dirty, angry and depressing. These negative meanings discourage some people from adopting Blackas an identifying term.

“For a long time, I didn’t like the termBlack as it’s not truly the color of my skin. My skin is a beautiful brown and should not be subjected to a dark and gloomy color, such as black. But over the years, I’ve grown to accept and love the term Blackbecause I’ve chosen to embrace it. Black is beautiful. It is not always gloomy,” a student said in an anonymous survey.

To Campbell, this debate is one big identity crisis that other people can’t grasp. “No one else can understand us trying to find our identity because we don’t know our identity,” she said. “We can’t go back to our heritage beyond leaving Africa. Once we left Africa, we lost everything.”

In Campbell’s opinion, picking a term that best describes Black people would first require Black people to understand themselves and their own history.

To figure out which term he prefers, guidance counselor David Peake asked himself a question, one that anyone might use to decide: “What’s African about me?”

We’re more than just a word or phrase. I’m grateful to live in a place where race is not taboo — we call it the “Shaker Bubble” — and I’m nervous to attend a predominantly white institution next year, where I’m sure many have not grown up having these uncomfortable conversations.

I challenge you to raise this discussion with your peers, family, and teachers, especially if they may be uncomfortable or uneducated on the topic. Simply bringing awareness to the debate can open minds to an issue that otherwise would have remained unconsidered. Conversation creates change, so start the conversation.

Erin Williams

Erin Williams is a Guest Author for Kidizenship from Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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