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African-American == Black?
January 23, 2004 5:49 AM   Subscribe

African-American == Black? Several high-school students at a predominantly white (well, predominantly NOT black) Nebraska high school were disciplined for a campaign to get 16-year-old student Trevor Richards awarded the school's annual "Distinguished African-American Student" award. Richards is from South Africa, now lives in America (not sure if he's a citizen, the CNN story isn't clear), but here's the catch: he's white.
posted by Bluecoat93 (111 comments total)

 
One word comes to mind: awesome.
posted by Ryvar at 5:51 AM on January 23, 2004


sorry for the impending derail but I lived near a bluecoat school in liverpool, and a fine school it was as well.
posted by johnnyboy at 5:58 AM on January 23, 2004


Heh. I seem to remember reading a writer's account of how a major media outlet (possibly the NYT) insisted on changing black to African-American in his article despite the fact that the people to whom he was referring lived in the Caribbean.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:10 AM on January 23, 2004


The term African-American drives me crazy...Not all black Americans are from Africa.
posted by Cool Alex at 6:14 AM on January 23, 2004


Sounds good to me.

South African Power!
posted by eas98 at 6:15 AM on January 23, 2004


wow.
posted by dabitch at 6:25 AM on January 23, 2004


Wouldn't white South Africans be European-Africans? And thus this kid really a European-African-American?
posted by dirtylittlemonkey at 6:32 AM on January 23, 2004


Cool Alex: Where would they be from? Even if they didn't get to the US directly - an African could be send as a slave to Brazil and a century latter his descents would move to the US - their first origin is still Africa.
posted by nkyad at 6:33 AM on January 23, 2004


I think these kids are 100% right and the administrators are lashing out because the kids put one over on them. PC morons don't like to be outed. I know MLK preached non-violence but even he might be tempted to smack these idiots.
posted by waltb555 at 6:34 AM on January 23, 2004


Meh. What the kids did was as stupid as if they'd protested an award for "Distinguished Black Student" on the grounds that the winner was brown, not black.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:36 AM on January 23, 2004


When I was traveling in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, I noticed that the term "African" was reserved for people of native descent, wherease those of European descent were referred to as "Whites". A white person from South Africa might refer to themselves as "South African," but they would never refer to themselves as "African." I didn't perceive this as rascist, but just a linguistic reflection of the fact that there were separate communities and identities and it was useful to be able to refer to them.

By this measure, the kid would have been a White South African American, but not an African American. Still, it just seems like a joke gone awry.
posted by alms at 6:36 AM on January 23, 2004


Man, this is terrific. Finally the whole "African-American" thing can be seen as the farce it is. If someone wants to be called that, I will respect that - but as for calling people that automatically as though it's the correct term, forget it. If it were really correct, we'd also be referring to Irish-Canadians or Scottish-Americans.
posted by orange swan at 6:42 AM on January 23, 2004


African-Amercian: a term wherein black people in the United States are again told that they are not regular Americans like everyone else, but are in fact modified Americans. Not real Americans, but African-Americans.

I wish people would get a grip and use the term they actually mean. They don't mean "people who came from Africa." Didn't we all come from Africa at one point? They mean black people, as the article indicates.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:43 AM on January 23, 2004


Nonetheless, this type of award seems like just the sort of thing that MLK was fighting against. He wanted racial equality, not special treatment in some cases for people of different colors.

The hypocrisy of the administration is even more apparent in this case where the kids take issue with the shattershot PC naming of this award.

And I still take issue with the idea of a national holiday for MLK. Lincoln and Washington (granted, they had their foibles) were very significant in the forming of our country. They have since had their national holidays combined into President's Day and now relegated to Great Americans' Day. MLK is a great American, and arguably not as great as they - he can share their day.
posted by ringmaster at 6:48 AM on January 23, 2004


Yeah, it's about time someone took advantage of Martin Luther King Day to put uppity negroes in their places! Go white people!

Asshats.
posted by subgenius at 6:53 AM on January 23, 2004


Oh, and when I call these kids "asshats," I'm just subverting political correctness. How edgy. Rock on, kids!
posted by subgenius at 6:58 AM on January 23, 2004


The Best African-American student in itself seems offensive in a pseudo-progressive sort of way. I know I wouldn't want to be labelled the best Canadian-American student or Belgian-Canadian student, I'm either the best student or not. If I'm not the best student then maybe I'm still an excellent or exceptional student so put me on the Dean's list or it's equivalent but don't create a special list based on my presumed skin colour, which it looks like they failed at anyway.

I've never heard of a Best African-American "whatever" award before but to me it sounds like a condescending pat on the head.
posted by substrate at 7:00 AM on January 23, 2004


Hildegarde, I'm pretty sure that the term African-American was not a term assigned by the white American establishment to apply to black Americans. The first time I ever heard it, was by Jesse Jackson when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984. As I recall, it was deemed more politically correct than "black" at the time. Perhaps someone better acquainted on the history of this can weigh in.

Overall, I agree with what you are saying here.
posted by psmealey at 7:03 AM on January 23, 2004


My question is "why does a Distinguished African American Student Award even exist?" Why even make color an issue when there are only 56 Black students out of 1,632. Can you fathom the backlash if they introduced a Distinguished White American Student Award in a predominantly Black high school or a Distinguished Jewish American Student Award. Sheesh.

on preview: what substrate said...
posted by shoepal at 7:04 AM on January 23, 2004


nkyad: I have Jamaican american friends that get very annoyed when people refer to them as African Americans. My point is that not all black people have african roots. Maybe it is the whole (insert county name here)-American deal is what I take issue with. Am I European-American? I'm going back to sleep...er work.
posted by Cool Alex at 7:08 AM on January 23, 2004


This thread is really bringing 'em out, isn't it? I don't know, I'd completely agree that suspending the kids was a hysterical overreaction, and I share some of you all's frustrations with the vagaries of identity politics, but then again, it's not my identity at stake! I mean, why not just call 'em all colored people, makes it easier on us whites. Sheesh. And you can see why it might piss some people off to be told that white South Africans, the perpetrators of apartheid remember, they're part of your identity group now, ha ha!

And all I have to say to ringmaster is, why be stingy with holidays? Washington, Lincoln, and MLK should have national holidays! Come on.
posted by furiousthought at 7:10 AM on January 23, 2004


I wish people would get a grip and use the term they actually mean. They don't mean "people who came from Africa." Didn't we all come from Africa at one point? They mean black people, as the article indicates.

And yet "black" people aren't actually black, are they? So you prefer an inaccurate term over an accurate but arguably overinclusive term? What's wrong with calling people what they want to be called?

And substrate is right about the pathetic nature of a "Best African-American student" award. It begged to be subverted.
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on January 23, 2004


Wouldn't white South Africans be European-Africans? And thus this kid really a European-African-American?

And what about French black people? Are they actually French African-Americans? Er...sorry...freedom African-Americans?
posted by uosuaq at 7:49 AM on January 23, 2004


It's nice to see Political Correctness finally biting people in the ass.

- nkyad
their first origin is still Africa.

By that definition, I'm putting African-American down on my next survey too, since, evolutionarily speaking, all humans are descended from some African ancestor - so what if there was some time spent in Europe first.

The fact is "African-American" is a fluff-off way to pretend to accommodate a "color-blind" society that doesn't exist. A way of saying "black" without bringing it back to the color of someone's skin.

You can't even tell me all native African descendent's are excepted either. My fiancé's father was an Egyptian immigrant, but she'd catch hell if she ever claimed "African-American" on anything.
posted by KnitWit at 7:51 AM on January 23, 2004


(as if on cue, following Languagehat's comment)

The concept of "race" is no longer considered by geneticists to be especially meaningful.

It should be laid to rest. Variations in genes controlling skin color are very minor in the overall context of the whole range of possible variations in the human genome.

This can be expressed by the following truism - In raw statistical terms, it is likely that I share less in common, genetically, with my fellow "white" next door neighbor (I am "white" as well) than with any randomly selected african.

Further, Africa is highly genetically diverse - being the birthplace of the human species ; it contains the highest levels of genetic diversity of any region on the planet. There are plenty of Africans who - but for skin, eye, and hair color - could pass for the most "Nordic" of Nordics in terms of facial and skeletal structure, nose shape, and so on. Bleach them white and lo ! - they are suddenly the teutonic supermen of drooling Nazi fantasy.

The concept of "race" should be laid to rest. It's a flabby, tired, tainted idea.

And the terms "African-American" or "African" are useful as cultural or ethnic markers, I suppose. But - except for skin color - they don't really refer to much that's genetically meaningful.

Our continued use of these terms - besides for the fact that humans are inclined to make "us" and "them" tribalistic distinctions (of which skin color is one of the obvious ones) - is simply due to the lag time between scientific discovery and the reaction of human culture to those discoveries. Further, this reaction does not - much in the same way as Stephen Jay Gould noted that the iconography of the "ascent" of the human species from "lower" species is an utterly corrupt notion - necessarily flow in one direction only, towards greater congruence between cultural belief and accepted scientific truth.

Belief in the Theory of Evolution, for example, seems to be on the decline among Americans who seem to be - both from the right, among Christian evangelicals, and from the left, among the "human potential" movement - falling into the epistimological morass of believing that reality is ultimately plastic and shaped, most importantly, by faith and belief itself.

I might be considered to be in this camp as well, in that I believe that the interaction between the human mind and the external world is a real one, but for the fact that I do not think that human belief has anything close to sufficient force power to change the basic laws of genetics or of physics which underlie our physical reality.

But many do hold this sort of notion, that belief can alter the basic scientific laws which undergird our lives - and more still are just walking away from belief in science altogether - including, it seems, this prominent science fiction writer recently discussed several times on Metafilter.

/ end digression

__________________________________________

I applaud the kid's joke.
posted by troutfishing at 7:53 AM on January 23, 2004


This one's pretty close to home from me.
I'm a South African citizen residing as a permanent resident in the USA.
Under the apartheid South African regime I grew up under, I was classified as "white".
To outward appearances, I look more like a South African "coloured" person (mullato).
This comes from my mom's side. We were always told that it was our "French" blood.
I did a little research, and it turns out that our "French" heritage is more likely from one of the North African French colonies (Algeria or Morocco, probably).

I get really panicky whenever I see a form that asks me what race I am.

And I'm not even getting into my dad's side of the family...
posted by dvdgee at 7:59 AM on January 23, 2004


ho hum... getting sleepy.
posted by a3matrix at 8:05 AM on January 23, 2004


What's wrong with calling people what they want to be called?

There's nothing wrong with that, but not everyone can agree on what even they should or want to be called. We have BET on cable television, not AAET. Or should we now be calling people the more offensive "urban" rather than African-American? This whole argument is indicative of the rampant racism in this country. And yes, it is still there. Ask yourself why there are no qualified black candidates for presidency this year (Sharpton is perceived as too much outside the norm, and I admittedly don't know anything about Braun's qualifications). Because the qualified ones know how much of a waste of time and money it would be to run because this country would never, this year, elect a black president. People resort to labels in order to identify themselves in the face of people who need to put them in little labeled boxes on shelves. African-American was a response to people who didn't want to be associated with a skin color but an ethnicity, but that only opened another can of worms. I don't refer to myself as an Italian-Czechoslovakian- American, because I was born in the US and therefore am an American, but that doesn't deny my ethnicity or the heritage of the genes that have been passed down to me, nor do I feel the need to explain to anyone where I came from. it matters more where I am going.

There's nothing wrong with calling people what they want to be called. I want to be called a human being, but some still want to refer to me as a faggot.
posted by archimago at 8:06 AM on January 23, 2004


meh, the whole dual cultural naming thing makes my mind boggle.

- nkyad
Just to be really pedantic, most Jamaicans are actually descended from African slaves. The indigenous people of the islands were all but wiped out by Columbus in 1494.
posted by MintSauce at 8:09 AM on January 23, 2004


So the way I see this is ...

(a) Concerned about negative images of Black people, a University creates an award to highlight the accomplishments of it's Black pupils. This is done in the hope that stereotypes can be eroded, and Black people are proportionally more likely to pursue a University Class Education.

(b) Award is named "African American" award in order not to upset Black people who publically state that the word "Black" is offensive and white racists who can't understand why, when "THEY" want to be treated the same, "THEY'VE" got to have a special award.

(c) Pedantic Smart Arse (who probably belongs in the latter category above) decides that the Award is badly named, and decides to subvert it. Subversion succeeds, and the media jumps on Bandwagon.

(d) MeFi Users discuss (Ad infinitum) why Black people cannot be classified as African American; Why the term African American is abusive; Why White South Africans should be allowed to win awards designed to combat inherent rascist attitudes.
posted by seanyboy at 8:09 AM on January 23, 2004


On a second read, what seanyboy said.
posted by MintSauce at 8:15 AM on January 23, 2004


Why even make color an issue when there are only 56 Black students out of 1,632.
ermmm. maybe because in the US, 180 people out of every 1,632 are black.
Asshat.
posted by seanyboy at 8:17 AM on January 23, 2004


I had a black freind named Darin in college, who when asked what he wanted to be called, said "Darin."

I think that both the people who dreamed up this award (which seems sort of condescending if you think about it, isn't "Best African-American Student," sort of a backwards way of saying "Not bad for a black guy?") and the people who are subverting it, both have an agenda that springs from an inability to see a black person as simply a human being.

Also, I was always under the impression that West Indian black people were the direct descendents of Africans, as well.
posted by jonmc at 8:24 AM on January 23, 2004


Oh, Oh , Mr. Kotter, Mr. Kotter!

If the out of Africa theory of evolution is correct, arn't all Americans "African-Americans"?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:25 AM on January 23, 2004


That's right seanyboy, all of us who think the award is silly are racists and too stupid to even see it.

I think you're the one with the prejudice, why do you hate whitey so much?
posted by Mick at 8:46 AM on January 23, 2004


Asshat? How dare you label me, Seanyboy! Tongue retracted, I'm not sure I understand your point.
posted by shoepal at 8:46 AM on January 23, 2004


So the award was for people who had a black skin, only.

The High School should have just stated the racial-segregation in the nomination process, and all would have been well.
posted by Blue Stone at 9:01 AM on January 23, 2004


If the out of Africa theory of evolution is correct, arn't all Americans "African-Americans"?

hehehe I thought of that earlier as well. Aren't there claims that all life originated in Africa?

This is PC gone crazy. People that are offended by this are missing the point entirely. It has nothing to do with black people, but more to do with the definition of "African-American". The students use of a South Afirican born white student is nothing more than a challenge to the school administrators to prove that said student is not in some way actually an African-American. Was he not born there? Does being white disqualify him on the grounds of skin color? Because if it does, they then have even bigger problems. If I was that kid, I would get the ACLU to sue the school district for discriminating against me.
It is sad that the shool reacted in such a predictable way, and thereby lost.
posted by a3matrix at 9:03 AM on January 23, 2004


So the way I see it is:

(a) Seanboy doesn't bother reading the original post or the article itself, as he didn't notice that this article is about a high school and not a university;

(b) A bunch of folks don't really get why affirmative action exists in the first place;

(c) a handful of people feel that the term "African-American" is too holy to be questioned in any context. Is that a positive thing? Is it beyond the pale to look at the way a term has evolved since it came into common practice in the 60s? Just because Jesse Jackson said it was okay doesn't make it perfect, unless you feel that all black people have a beknighted leader who speaks for all time. Does that strike you as problematic?
posted by Hildegarde at 9:10 AM on January 23, 2004


Evidently you can be from Africa but the PC crowd will never accept you as "african", just like your skin can be dark but you'll not be considered black by so-called "african-american community leaders", just as those pols denounce Colin Powell and Condi Rice as "being white".

Obviously this is in part political grandstanding, but also requires the realization that racial discrimination isn't just for white folks to engage in anymore.
posted by clevershark at 9:11 AM on January 23, 2004


I think you're the one with the prejudice, why do you hate whitey so much?

I'll lay you dollars-to-donuts he is whitey. The ones yelling loudest here seem to suffer either from a cause of the white guilts or big white bwana complex: the view of blacks as poor helpless victims taht need to be "saved" by whites. Beware the race you try to uplift, for they may just uplift themselves.
posted by jonmc at 9:14 AM on January 23, 2004


shoepal: Asshat was uncalled for.
Apologies.

Mick. all of us who think the award is silly are racists and too stupid to even see it.
Well I didn't say that, but ...
I'd modify the "and" to an "and/or", but that's pretty much my opinion, yes. If you can't see why achievement Awards are useful, then I say - Shame on You.
posted by seanyboy at 9:17 AM on January 23, 2004


One problem not mentioned, is that "Black" does not distinguish between those who would once have been called negroes and those from the Indian sub-continent, many of whom are far darker than your average African American. The two groups are quite distinct and have different issues regarding how they are and have been treated by US society at large.
posted by daveg at 9:19 AM on January 23, 2004


jonmc: Yeah - colour me Whitey. Other than that remarkably "perceptive" guess at my racial identity, I'd say the rest of your comment was pretty stupid.
Beware the race you try to uplift, for they may just uplift themselves.
What the Hell does that mean?
posted by seanyboy at 9:24 AM on January 23, 2004


Because the qualified ones know how much of a waste of time and money it would be to run because this country would never, this year, elect a black president.

I agree that it would be a waste of time for most black politicians to run for president. I'm sure that there are racists who would never vote for a black candidate, but I think we need to keep in mind the type of politician that seems to come out of the black community in the United States. Their politics are simply too far outside the mainstream to be elected. Do you think that Charles Rangel, Shelia Jackson Lee or Maxine Waters would have much chance to succeed outside their districts? I don't.

As for the award for the Nebraska school, if they wanted the award to go to a black student, they simply should have said so.
posted by Durwood at 9:26 AM on January 23, 2004


I think that the big point that's been missed is that they were high school students. It's the responsibility of the HS kids with a sense of humor to pull stuff like this, and it's the responsibility of the school authorities to quash it. That's part of the great cycle of life in the suburbs.

Sure, the award is condescending, and the term "African-American" lends itself to this type of "subversive" application. But it doesn't matter. The punishment doesn't matter, the award that the kids were lampooning probably means nothing (even to the recipient), and the currently acceptable euphemism for "black" doesn't matter. Use "black" if you're too hard-edged, straightforward and tell-it-like-it is for whatever those liberal pussies are pushing. This is just a "slow newsday" article, but folks are getting pissed off about it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:27 AM on January 23, 2004


Beware the race you try to uplift, for they may just uplift themselves.
What the Hell does that mean?


That many black people see the motivations of many "anti-racist" whites as self-serving and hypocritical* and would prefer to see change originate from within the black community.

*esp. when the furor is over cosmetic, semantic, tempest in a teapot spats like this one. There's a Best African-American Student Award. Woo-hoo. I'm sure that the unemployed black guy living in the projects will be thrilled to know his problems are over.
posted by jonmc at 9:35 AM on January 23, 2004


We're All Related to Kevin Bacon.
via PBS
posted by geekyguy at 9:35 AM on January 23, 2004


...but also requires the realization that racial discrimination isn't just for white folks to engage in anymore.

Try being a bald white guy walking through an "African-American" neighborhood. Or have picture of your Ancient Egyptian religious group online, in which the majority of folks are white. That realization comes pretty damn fast.

I'm not a racist, but I'm happy to discriminate against anyone who decides that I am a racist purely on visuals (i.e. white skin + bald head = must hate black people).
posted by Foosnark at 9:47 AM on January 23, 2004


may just uplift themselves.

hmm...i'm not sure that's happening. like clevershark said, when pols act against black superstars like condi and colin, that's gotta be a sign of retrogression. and the entire idea of "bling bling" and thug life isn't necessarily progress, either.

it's like stuart hall said, what is this "black" in black popular culture? why do we need to continue to divide?
posted by taumeson at 9:49 AM on January 23, 2004


This is insane. It's like someone running out of a burning building, yelling "My house is on fire," and being met by a crowd of people saying, "You call that a house? That looks like an apartment building to me. Or maybe a condo...."
posted by subgenius at 9:49 AM on January 23, 2004


Hildegarde: I agree with your points. No - I didn't read the article; I've actually no idea what "Affirmative Action is"; No phrase should be so Holy that it can't be questioned.

My assumption that it was a university also allowed me to make some pretty stupid comments. I retract these.

There's a confusion in this thread as to which is the most annoying. Some people seem to think that it's the term "African American" and some seem to have a real problem with Black Achievment awards.

Firstly. Words can mean different things. I don't think there's a person on Metafilter (or, probably in the US) that is confused by the term "African American." It means, and is possibly a constriction of "Americans of Black African Origin". This term covers people from Africa as well as those from the West Indies.
We all know this, and although there may be a place to discuss the semantic validity of this phrase, I'd argue that It'd have be somewhere where issues of Race were unlikely to be bolted onto it. i.e. Not High School; Not Metafilter.

Secondly. Are achievement awards for minorities a good or a bad thing? There's a diversity of opinion on this, but my personal opinion is that they are a VERY good thing. This is not because of feelings of Guilt, or some paternal mid-Victorian desire to help out the "Savages", but because I know that I modelled myself (as a child) on those people that I thought were the most like me. Because I wore glasses at an early age, I looked at other people wearing glasses, (TV Scientists and Boffins) and I pushed myself in that direction.
I'm pretty sure that for the last few years there have been a large number of Black Kids pestering dad for "Tiger Wood (inc)" Golf Sets.

So Positive Role Models are Good. You could argue that nobody would want to follow somebody that's been given an award because they're the smartest person of a certain colour, and I don't know if this is the case, but my suspicion is that for most people how the award was achieved is less important than what the award is.

I think that to belittle acheivement awards is to reduce public access to these great role models that need (for the sake of future equality) to be in the public eye.

That's all I'm saying - I'm off to get very Drunk.
posted by seanyboy at 9:57 AM on January 23, 2004


This is insane. It's like someone running out of a burning building, yelling "My house is on fire," and being met by a crowd of people saying, "You call that a house? That looks like an apartment building to me. Or maybe a condo...."

Right, instead they should be calling the nice white fireman to come save them. See what I'm getting at...

it's like stuart hall said, what is this "black" in black popular culture? why do we need to continue to divide?

My theory is that it helps marketers better define their niches.
posted by jonmc at 9:57 AM on January 23, 2004


A few thoughts: immediately after becoming a Canadian citizen, and thereafter, a Jamaican-born man I knew said he was "Canadian. I not Jamaican."
He meant it. Jamaica was just the place where he used to live. Canada was now his homeland.

Another gentleman, from an *old* South African Jewish family, insisted that anyone who rejected his "African" status was being subtly anti-Semitic--him seeing South African Jews being a cut above even "ordinary" Jews.

He then assured me that Afrikaners and Zulus only respect each other--hard earned warrior respect--and have disdain for everybody else, no matter where they came from.

Later, I observed a group of Zulus who wouldn't even talk to a black American. Snooty to a degree. Wouldn't talk to me, a white American, either. Mostly kept to themselves.

I don't want to make generalizations about these characters, other than to point out that "Africa" is a continent, and little else. American blacks have only oppression and segregation holding them together. When that is transcended, they will be just "Americans", a word they will probably shun like many other Americans, for similarly odd reasons.
posted by kablam at 10:05 AM on January 23, 2004


I know that I modelled myself (as a child) on those people that I thought were the most like me. Because I wore glasses at an early age, I looked at other people wearing glasses, (TV Scientists and Boffins) and I pushed myself in that direction.

I actually, I think there's a little bit of confusion there. What you seem to have been doing was "identifying" with those characters more than "modeling."

When I had childhood idols, it was because theydid something I admired. When I was young I looked up to Reggie Jackson, and Muhammad Ali because when I saw them on TV they were great at what they did, and cool under pressure. Same went when I got older and admired Jimi Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield. One of the triumphs of the civil rights movement and the greater exposure of Black acheivent taht it engendered is that a young white kid like me could see these Black men and say " I wanna be like him." This helps breed the possibility of getting past bigotry because it's difficult to hate what you idolize.

To make seperate awards for "Best African American Whatever" is to demean the greatness of these people. Ali wasn't a great black boxer. he was a great boxer. period.
posted by jonmc at 10:06 AM on January 23, 2004


That many black people see the motivations of many "anti-racist" whites as self-serving and hypocritical* and would prefer to see change originate from within the black community.
Ooooh - Black people disagree with me. That's like a paradox for white liberals isn't it. Am I supposed to get really confused and start walking backwards and forwards with smoke pouring out of my liberal ears.
posted by seanyboy at 10:06 AM on January 23, 2004


No, maybe you're supposed to ask yourself why they might disagree with you and see if they might have a point.
posted by jonmc at 10:29 AM on January 23, 2004


As for the award for the Nebraska school, if they wanted the award to go to a black student, they simply should have said so

They did say so. What the hell do you think that "African-American student" means? You know that it means a black student, I know that it means a black student, your dog knows that it means a black student, and my navel lint knows that it means a black student. Why on earth would you even pretend to believe that it means something other than what everyone knows it precisely means?

Like I said before, pretending that "African-American" is anything other than a polite synonym for "negro" is as asinine as harping on something for talking about black people when it means brown.

As for "African-American being some sort of PC overload, yeesh. It's a synonym that's more polite than "black" or "colored" (or "nigger" or "coon"), if for no better reason than that it's not something that an overseer ever called anyone's ancestor. What, are people so opposed to simple politeness that they feel it should have been called the Distinguished Black-Ass Colored Nigger Student Award?

Fighting against this isn't fighting against any sort of excessive political-correctness, it's just fighting against common courtesy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:31 AM on January 23, 2004


a handful of people feel that the term "African-American" is too holy to be questioned in any context. Is that a positive thing? Is it beyond the pale to look at the way a term has evolved since it came into common practice in the 60s?

No, but we've not exactly been looking at the evolution of the term in this thread, have we? It's basically been a forum for people who are sick of dealing with race as an issue and view this as an opportunity to strike at an artificial construct in the theory that if we stop talking about race then race will cease to exist. I'd like that too, but there's a difference between making race vanish and sweeping it under the rug, so if you want a society like that, could you please try to tell the difference?

Me, I don't have any particular affection for "African-American", but I'm of the school of "call people what they want to be called" and it shouldn't be a big deal. Different people will have different opinions. I think it's a little presumptuous to look at another group of people and tell them they're using the wrong name or that they don't get to have one in the first place, but you know, it's a messy issue and I muddle through it as best I can.

I think that both the people who dreamed up this award (which seems sort of condescending if you think about it, isn't "Best African-American Student," sort of a backwards way of saying "Not bad for a black guy?") and the people who are subverting it, both have an agenda that springs from an inability to see a black person as simply a human being.

Totally agree.
posted by furiousthought at 10:32 AM on January 23, 2004


Right, instead they should be calling the nice white fireman to come save them. See what I'm getting at...

No, I don't. If you want to criticize the idea of the award, that's one thing: Given the fact we know nothing about the school (read the Trackback for some more context) it's hard to know who came up with the idea or what it's intended to mean. It could be completely patronizing -- it certainly sounds like a peculiar designation, particularly since it's based on a suspect classification -- or it could be something more complicated and less controversial. Either way, I'm less concerned with that than all the indignation in this thread about the term used in the award.

If you want to criticize the term "African American," it goes without saying that it's an imprecise term. As others have noted, race is a slippery concept and the labels used to describe it are, unsurprisingly, imperfect. Of course none of this means that race is unimportant -- exactly the opposite.

Rather than have a serious discussion about these issues, these kids ignored the fact that "African American" -- while imprecise -- describes ethnicity, not nation of origin. Based on this misconception, they ran around causing a big distraction on MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY. Suppose it was a "Distinguished Black Student " award, and this kid walked around with black shoe polish on his face to show that he was black while the other students were merely brown? Wouldn't that be a hoot?
posted by subgenius at 10:32 AM on January 23, 2004


subgenius: actually my criticism sprung from your overreaction ("asshats") to those who would criticise the award, and the "uppity negroes" remark which assumes motivations that aren't neccessarily in evidence. Sounds more like sophmoric humor or at worst unconcious bigotry.


Suppose it was a "Distinguished Black Student " award, and this kid walked around with black shoe polish on his face to show that he was black while the other students were merely brown? Wouldn't that be a hoot?

Something of a strawman to equate the two.
posted by jonmc at 10:45 AM on January 23, 2004


a. Why is it racist to say that public institutions shouldn't be handing out awards that are restricted to people with particular ethnicities?
b. Why is it racist to point out (in a humorous way) that the use of "African American" as a racial term is highly problematic?

"Black" when applied to human beings and their skin color, is literally inaccurate, but as a racial term, it has the virtue of having a single, unambiguous meaning. (In the U.S., at least; when considered in a global English-speaking context, it has several local meanings (Maori, Australian Aboriginal, South Asian, etc.) that don't match each other. But I digress.) "African American" is a term that, by analogy with similar terms (e.g. "Irish American", "Polish American", "Korean American"), means an American who was born in Africa, or is descended from people born in Africa. However, in common American English usage, it has come to be a more polite and formal synonym for the racial term "black". This presents the problem of conflicting meanings, which was exploited by the Westside High pranksters to satirize the award.

Also, one (locally relevant) argument against the award that isn't the "'They' want to be equal, but 'they' want special treatment too" strawman that seanyboy invoked: There are 56 black students, and one gets the "Distinguished African American Student Award" every year. Assuming a four-year run for all students and no repeat winners, that works out to 1 chance in 14, or a probability of about 7%, that a randomly chosen black student would get the award. Assuming that, on average, 1 out of every 10 high school students does something at all worthy of being called "distinguished" (a liberal estimate, in my opinion), and those odds go up to slightly more than 71%. In other words, there's a likely candidate pool of six students for four awards. It doesn't seem so impressive now, does it?

Personally, I think that:
- "American American" should carry only the first, analogous meaning; "black" is not widely offensive enough per se to necessitate a euphemism, and non-black Americans from Africa need a term with which to identify themselves.
- "Black" as a racial term should refer to what it currently refers to: people who are plausibly identified (by themselves or others) as being at least partially descended from people born in sub-Saharan Africa between the beginning of written history and 1453. It is still useful as a neutral way of identifying people who continue to be subject to external oppression based on their apparent "race".
- American English needs a new term for people directly descended from American slaves. At the moment, "black" includes many immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and other regions who are distinct from the former in terms of culture, religion, historical perspective, and ethnic identity, and so is overly broad for some uses (e.g. talking about ethnic tension between said group and Haitian immigrants, or discussing reparations for slavery in concrete terms). A new term as defined above, and strongly defended as such (i.e. as being distinct from the dominant concept of "blackness") would also help to recast public dialogue less in terms of "race" or physical appearance, and more in terms of a particular perspective arising from a specific ethnohistorical experience.
- People will keep using these terms any way they want, regardless of what I think.
- on preview, Mayor Curley has it about right.
posted by skoosh at 10:49 AM on January 23, 2004


Because the qualified ones know how much of a waste of time and money it would be to run because this country would never, this year, elect a black president.

I think we're getting past this. Obviously theoretical polls are useless, but it nonetheless seemed the case that Colin Powell would have won in 2000 had his wife permitted him to run (not a veiled sexist slap, just a statement of the facts of his situation).

My fingers remain crossed that the Dem nominee will choose John Lewis as their running mate, not just because he's black, but because he personally represents a time in our shared history (civil rights movement, March on
Washington, etc.) that gets constantly assailed by the "culture warriors," and he's moderate and inclusive enough to make them look as stupid as they are.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:52 AM on January 23, 2004


"American American" = "African American". My bad.
posted by skoosh at 11:01 AM on January 23, 2004


Hey Jon, my father was a Seattle Firefighter for 12 years...just sayin'.
I don't particularly like the term African American, my family's been here for a long time. There's nothing "African" about me. I am just (if not more) as American as Pat Buchanan. But I understand why people may choose to use it. I think most of us know what it means.
Secondly, I think that Mayor Curley, subgenius and (on preview, skoosh) hit the nail on the head. This isn't about being PC or semantics, it's about having issues sensitive to us (meaning what I call black folks...meaning me) ridiculed and treated with distain or fodder for stupid pranks. THAT my friends, is what rankles.
posted by black8 at 11:02 AM on January 23, 2004


I wonder where they'd draw the line for mixed race students?

Half & half is ok, but less than 1/4 'black' and you're ineligible to participate?

Wouldn't that just discriminate against another minority?
posted by Blue Stone at 11:06 AM on January 23, 2004


Nah, see one of the legacies of slavery that is still with us is the "One Drop" rule. So, unless you can "pass" yr black!
Isn't that simple?!
/sarcasm
posted by black8 at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2004


American blacks have only oppression and segregation holding them together.


wow.
posted by archimago at 11:12 AM on January 23, 2004


With all due respect Ignatius, that's a really huge leap. IMHO, if Powell actually had made it to the election booths a lot of people's hidden racism would have come screaming out. Maybe I'm just cynical but I have a hard time believing Powell could have won. Or maybe because I am a minority I face hidden discrimination on a daily basis from people I personally expect better from, who talk the talk but when push comes to shove don't have the balls even in 2004 to stand up for the dignity of all humans.
posted by archimago at 11:19 AM on January 23, 2004


subgenius: actually my criticism sprung from your overreaction ("asshats") to those who would criticise the award, and the "uppity negroes" remark which assumes motivations that aren't neccessarily in evidence. Sounds more like sophmoric humor or at worst unconcious bigotry

Overreaction? I think not. A couple of white kids from a community with a noted racist heritage decide to subvert MLK day by creating a big ol' red herring distraction? That award was the only act of racism they could find to attack? That term was the only racial ambiguity they could find to critique? That was the only day they could do it? I don't buy your "white boys will be white boys" defense. I think what they did was completely analogous to running around in blackface, except they used semantics rather than shoe polish to make their point.
posted by subgenius at 11:23 AM on January 23, 2004


I think that Mayor Curley, subgenius and (on preview, skoosh) hit the nail on the head. This isn't about being PC or semantics, it's about having issues sensitive to us (meaning what I call black folks...meaning me) ridiculed and treated with distain or fodder for stupid pranks. THAT my friends, is what rankles.

I can definitely understand that, black8. BUt the whole frappin' situation seems to be making the issues look silly. Both the patronizing award and the stupid prank make the underlying issue of race in America look specious and nitpicky, or in other words making us miss the forest for the trees.



I am just (if not more) as American as Pat Buchanan.

Truer words were never spoken. I once got into a discussion where somebody brought up "white culture." I said that there was no such thing. This is not to say that white people havent contributed to American culure, but to say this: There's Italian-American culture, German-American culture, Appalachian culture etc. but no overriding "white culture." Except of course for shared American culture, which black people have been a part of since it's beginnings.

American blacks have only oppression and segregation holding them together.

What!??

Look, I believe that lumping all black people under some imaginary monoculture is silly (for instance a Jamaican-born working class guy living in Brooklyn is very different from an American-Born professor living in California, say) but what you seem to be suggesting is that "oppression" is the sole defining characteristic of black culture, which is ridiculous on it's face. What about a shared ancestral homeland? What about a shared history (which is far from being simply about triumphs over oppression.

This may seem to contradict the paragraph above, but not when you consider that had black Americans come to this hemisphere voluntarily, they would more likely identify as Senegalese or Nigerian, say, but history makes that impossible for them. But a new culture was carved out of the circumstances they found themselves in. Thus oppression is a factor in black american culture but by no means the only one.

I don't buy your "white boys will be white boys" defense.

subgenus: I'm not defending it. Just saying that it's such stupidity that I just consider the source and move on.
posted by jonmc at 11:29 AM on January 23, 2004


Okay, just for the record, I commented on the language just because it interests me, not because I feel like that's the most important issue raised here. Back in the day I read a fair bit on scholarship on the use of the term "African-American", by black and white scholars, and the topic is still interesting to me.

Given the tone of the thread, I feel I should say that I support awards and scholarships and jobs specifically set aside for black Americans at any level. For what that's worth. And I do agree that the students were being jackasses and I think the punishment was just.

My interest in the language isn't support for those students. I didn't realize this thread was going to go so...racist.
posted by Hildegarde at 11:40 AM on January 23, 2004


"Black" when applied to human beings and their skin color, is literally inaccurate

So is "white".
posted by biscotti at 12:04 PM on January 23, 2004


One other note: the statistics on Westside Community Schools District's site conflict with CNN's reported statistic: according to the District's numbers, there are 94 black students out of 1,780 total students, or 5.28%. So, it could be almost twice as distinguishing as I thought to be a Distinguished African American Student at Westside.

On preview: I don't know if I'd call it a stupid prank; it was a silly prank, yes, but for Trevor Richards (the poster boy and co-conspirator), there may be a deeper identity issue at work here. As mentioned by kablam earlier, at least some white South Africans insist on being identified as African. And dvdgee still isn't sure which boxes to check off. Now, as a transplanted South African, he likely feels a bit different from the "native" white people of Omaha - suffice it to say that he probably has memories and experiences unique among Westside High students, growing up in South Africa. On the other hand, although he may think of himself as African (being from Africa and all), this identity is not uncontested -- not even in South Africa. (cf. the slogan "One settler, one bullet".) It's quite possible that he was one of those white people in Africa who chose to identify as African and vigorously defend his claim to African-ness, and that impulse may very well have been carried over on his move to Nebraska. It's as if a Chinese-American moved to Germany and constantly had to struggle against the (completely hypothetical) perception that she couldn't possibly be American, because of her Chinese identity - that "American" necessarily meant "white". (Actually, we don't even have to leave the United States to see examples of that line of thinking.)

Unfortunately, if it was an attempt on Richards' part to say, "Hey! This is who I am, and I ain't goin' nowhere!", he managed to tread upon the sensibilities of a lot of people with their own pre-existing histories, ethnic tensions, and identity issues. And I don't just mean black people. Americans - we're all messed up in the head.
posted by skoosh at 12:08 PM on January 23, 2004


They did say so. What the hell do you think that "African-American student" means? You know that it means a black student


Hold on now. THAT is exactly what the students were questioning. Here they have a South African born white student. How does African-American=Black American? That was their challenge to school. Albeit, a touch naive and simplistic. But come one! They are high schoolers.
Not to belittle anyone else who might be in HS.

As to your statement, you assume it to mean black, because for a long time that was the accepted definition of the phrase African-American.
As I stated earlier, this kid should call the ACLU and sue the school district. He is more African-American than any black person that was born here in the USA.
He could have "African-American" redefined to meet a new standard.
posted by a3matrix at 12:20 PM on January 23, 2004


What's weird about the term African-American for me is it's relation to the term American-Indian. They have the same structure, but are used it completely different ways.

What these kids did sounds like something I might've done in high school or grade school. When you're young, you do stuff like this. You spend your time trying to be clever and pull one over on the teachers. The context and history would be secondary and something the kids were probably not fully aware of.
posted by ODiV at 12:33 PM on January 23, 2004


Hey Hildegarde, I didn't mean to point at you specifically, though now that I look back on what I wrote it kinda looks like it - whoops. Seeing a few bits of your scholarship re the use of "African-American" would've done this thread some good I think. And see, my stance is that the students were being jackasses, but probably jackasses with benign intentions (like what ODiV just said, though subgenius' scenario is also possible), and their punishment was stupid; a good solid memorable talking to from a few interested authority figures oughta have done the trick.
posted by furiousthought at 12:45 PM on January 23, 2004


This isn't about being PC or semantics, it's about having issues sensitive to us (meaning what I call black folks...meaning me) ridiculed and treated with distain or fodder for stupid pranks. THAT my friends, is what rankles.

Amen. Nuff said.
posted by y2karl at 1:02 PM on January 23, 2004


Hold on now. THAT is exactly what the students were questioning. Here they have a South African born white student. How does African-American=Black American?

It does. It is universally acknowledged to be a polite and concise form for "A person who has a lot of ancestors from the predominant aboriginal subsaharan African ethnicities," and there are no serious competing meanings for the word. Similarly, we all know that "caucasian" refers to any white person, and not merely one from the Caucasus, and that Latino does not refer to speakers of Latin, and that hamburgers may be made in any city.

It's simply a dumb thing to "question" or "challenge." Yes, the word is a bit at odds with itself, but so what? Many other words, particularly proper nouns, are as well.

If they were making fun of a student named Chandler Smith because he neither makes candles nor works metal, in defiance of both his names, I do not think that we would be pondering the merits of their finely-honed linguistic argument -- we would think they were jackasses. Probably that they were jackasses in ways that are typical of late-adolescents, but jackasses. I see little reason to change that judgment merely because the objects of their implicit ridicule happen to be black.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:14 PM on January 23, 2004


And yet "black" people aren't actually black, are they? So you prefer an inaccurate term over an accurate but arguably overinclusive term?

"White" people aren't actually white, are they? Yet noone finds the term offensive.

What's wrong with calling people what they want to be called?

Ok, I wish for my race to be called "The Superior Race". Any problems with that? I imagine you would have a few, as would any reasonable person.

As I have maintained for 20 years or so now, I will call people with negroid skin African American when those with caucasian skin are called European American.

Conversely, I will stop using the inaccurate term "black" when the inaccurate term "white" is no longer used.

Branching from ROU's argument above, everyone knows what "black" means. You, me, your dog, etc.

Politeness? You wish to sacrifice naming conventions at a whim due to politeness? How about women being called "womyn"? Is that peachy keen in your book too, as not to offend any female (oops, femayle) who might take umbrage at "woman"???

Bah.
posted by Ynoxas at 1:26 PM on January 23, 2004


Just as not all blacks are black, not all whites are white. For example, I am flesh colored. ;-P
posted by mischief at 1:28 PM on January 23, 2004


Addendum:

Branching from ROU's argument above, everyone knows what "black" means. You, me, your dog, etc.

More precisely, everyone knows "african american" means "black". So why even have it? If I call you the arse of a donkey, is that REALLY any more polite than jackass?

(BTW, that is only illustrative, I actually consider you one of the brighter people here. And I'm always a bit disappointed when I disagree with you, for my sake.)
posted by Ynoxas at 1:32 PM on January 23, 2004


"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

/MLK Day irony
posted by darren at 1:35 PM on January 23, 2004


As something approximating a democrat, I would seriously consider voting for a black republican president. Back in the UK, I knew a number of centre-left women who voted for Margaret Thatcher, despite her record, just to get the ball rolling.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 2:26 PM on January 23, 2004


This whole debate goes away if people would face the simple fact that in common usage, "African-American" is a euphemism and that it is not used or intended to be used literally. It's a shitty euphemism, but one that has established itself.

I applaud these kids for taking a jab at the silliness of this particular abuse of language, almost as much as I condemn these kids for trying to subvert the clear and obvious spirit and intent of the award. A clever and not unimportant rhetorical point is being made. However, the rhetorical point is being made at the expense of others. Not cool.
posted by majick at 2:27 PM on January 23, 2004


a3matrix: Hold on now. THAT is exactly what the students were questioning. Here they have a South African born white student. How does African-American=Black American?

From Dictionary.com: African American. n. A Black American of African ancestry.
posted by subgenius at 2:30 PM on January 23, 2004


This reminds me of the time Charlize Theron was hosting Saturday Night Live and her opening bit was her and Tracy Morgan riffing on her being from South Africa and, therefore, an "African-American". Should have had a "Kids, don't try this at home/school" disclaimer.

I honestly don't think these kids meant to offend anyone or were trying to make a joke at anyone's expense. They're kids fercrissakes, and a 50/1600 black/white ratio at the school probably means that they haven't had a whole lot of exposure to black culture or history. They're more likely ignorant than racist.
posted by echolalia67 at 3:13 PM on January 23, 2004


"American blacks have only oppression and segregation holding them together."

Okay, lump together Condoleeza Rice, Michael Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Willy Horton, Colin Powell, Robin Givens and Michael Jordan. What *do* they share other than some vague skin color?

Most powerful female in the US. Mutant (alleged) child molester/pop star. Fading, corrupt demagogue. Imprisoned multiple murderer. Immigrant from the Dominican Republic 5-star General Secretary of State. Howard Stern's Ed McMahon. A really good basketball player.

These people have almost nothing in common. To insist that they do takes more and more effort all the time. And so it is with the rest of "black" America.
posted by kablam at 3:24 PM on January 23, 2004


"caucasian" refers to any white person, and not merely one from the Caucasus

The funny thing is that Russians call people from the Caucasus chorny ('black').

Well, maybe it's not all that funny. And this thread has really degenerated.
posted by languagehat at 4:03 PM on January 23, 2004


They don't have anything in common other than the society they live in sees fit to fit them all in one category called "African American" and police are pretty likely to pull of them over for driving a swanky car while black.

Except for Michael Jackson, who looks like a white woman from a distance, and thus might manage to avoid racial profiling.

But you get my point.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:03 PM on January 23, 2004


More precisely, everyone knows "african american" means "black". So why even have it?

Because it's almost-objectively more courteous. It gives less/no offense, and doesn't cause nearly the eye-rolling of really dumb constructions like "womyn." Minimally, it expresses the sentiment that the speaker is trying to be polite.

I just got cheezed when the first comments were congratulating the kids on being jackasses as if they were brave young things fighting some despicable tyranny.

While some things can go over into outright euphemisms and la-la-PC-land, I don't think the term African-American comes close. It's a boring, neutral, geographic term, such as had already been in use to describe other, more voluntary, immigrants from other lands. It has nothing of the false-positive quality that really euphemistic stuff (ie, calling retarded kids "special") does.

So I don't think you can make any reasonable case that the use of African-American is some sort of weird PC excess. It's just a more formal and courteous version of black. So I see the kids as fighting not against PC excess, but against common courtesy. IE, they were acting like jackasses.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:59 PM on January 23, 2004


IMHO, if Powell actually had made it to the election booths a lot of people's hidden racism would have come screaming out. Maybe I'm just cynical but I have a hard time believing Powell could have won.

Cynical? More like paranoid.

Or maybe because I am a minority I face hidden discrimination on a daily basis from people I personally expect better from,



Uh, if it's hidden, how do you know it's there? Perhaps you just suck in general?
posted by delmoi at 5:01 PM on January 23, 2004


Cynical? More like paranoid.

Out of the two centuries we've had this country, there have been precisely zero Black presidents. Don't get me wrong, Black people weren't allowed to participate in the democratic process for about 80% of that period, but I haven't noticed any Black presidents wandering through the White House over the past few decades. And while the idea of a Black President may sound interesting or attractive or noncontroversial, you may have noticed that a non-trivial percentage of the White population is ready to LOSE ITS SHIT over the revolutionary term "African American" -- leading me to believe they might not be quite ready to see an African American face behind the podium at the next State of the Union Address.

Or maybe they'll vote for a minority candidate as long as he (or she) is never going to discuss race.

Good god are we screwed.
posted by subgenius at 6:08 PM on January 23, 2004


Most powerful female in the US.

You mean that's who's on the cover of Oprah this month?

Immigrant from the Dominican Republic 5-star General Secretary of State

And don't forget War Crime Apologist Spinmeister My Lai Cover Up!
posted by y2karl at 6:56 PM on January 23, 2004


I don't think you can make any reasonable case that the use of African-American is some sort of weird PC excess
Since moving to the South, I have known many blacks. I do not recall any of them saying 'African-American' but they do say 'black', nor have any of them seemed offended when I or other whites say 'black'. So, just where the hell is 'African-American' being used?
posted by mischief at 9:29 PM on January 23, 2004


I think the use of the term African-American has declined at about the same rate that Jessie Jackson's relevance has.
posted by Mick at 10:39 PM on January 23, 2004


Since moving to the South, I have known many blacks. I do not recall any of them saying 'African-American' but they do say 'black'

And I've heard many blacks use "African-American." Shall we whip out our personal anecdotes and see whose is bigger? (smiley goes here)

My limited sense is that African-American is more commonly used in more formal settings; in settings where'd you'd be likely to refer to a stranger as Mr/Ms So-and-so, you'd be a lot more likely to hear A-A than black. I'd think it obvious that a school honorific* would fit into this category.

One place where it's obviously being used is at one school honorific in Omaha. If it weren't, the issue would never have arisen. Why does this choice make people so upset? "African-American" is at least as accurate as "black" is, and no more loopy geographically than caucasian or wiener or a zillion other words with geographic origins. So?

*irrespective of whatever merit and problems a "distinguished african-american student" award has; me, i'd be happier giving an mlk-day award to a student who'd done the most distinguished service wrt civil rights or racial equality, but i don't control the school board in omaha. yet.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:07 PM on January 23, 2004


I have a friend from born in egypt to egyptian parents. When she applied to Texax A&M she stated that her ancestral heritage is African. When she got to the minority welcome party, she was accosted by the admin and finally re-categorized as "hispanic" so that she might still draw her financial aid, but not offend the status quo.
posted by jmgorman at 7:34 AM on January 24, 2004


My example is not about anecdotal evidence but the instance that disproves the rule. My experience ranges across the spectrum of university exposure (Georgia Tech) through the US military (Marine Corps) to automation line workers, albeit all in the South.

My guess then is 'African-American' is used in those locales where black-white interaction is rare rather than commonplace.
posted by mischief at 8:17 AM on January 24, 2004


I would hope that, given all the complexities of race, we're capable of having different terms to describe the same concepts. I doubt that Mischief and ROU_Xenophobe are living in parallel universes. Obviously there are still others. This is getting sort of silly.

Given the fact people will fight about the extent to which race exists or can be used to classify people, it seems only natural that different terms will apply -- and that those terms may change over time. Dictionary.com has some interesting usage notes on race:
Usage Note: The notion of race is nearly as problematic from a scientific point of view as it is from a social one. European physical anthropologists of the 17th and 18th centuries proposed various systems of racial classifications based on such observable characteristics as skin color, hair type, body proportions, and skull measurements, essentially codifying the perceived differences among broad geographic populations of humans. The traditional terms for these populationsCaucasoid (or Caucasian), Mongoloid, Negroid, and in some systems Australoidare now controversial in both technical and nontechnical usage, and in some cases they may well be considered offensive. (Caucasian does retain a certain currency in American English, but it is used almost exclusively to mean “white” or “European” rather than “belonging to the Caucasian race,” a group that includes a variety of peoples generally categorized as nonwhite.) The biological aspect of race is described today not in observable physical features but rather in such genetic characteristics as blood groups and metabolic processes, and the groupings indicated by these factors seldom coincide very neatly with those put forward by earlier physical anthropologists. Citing this and other pointssuch as the fact that a person who is considered black in one society might be nonblack in anothermany cultural anthropologists now consider race to be more a social or mental construct than an objective biological fact.
And also for the term Black:
Usage Note: The Oxford English Dictionary contains evidence of the use of black with reference to African peoples as early as 1400, and certainly the word has been in wide use in racial and ethnic contexts ever since. However, it was not until the late 1960s that black (or Black) gained its present status as a self-chosen ethnonym with strong connotations of racial pride, replacing the then-current Negro among Blacks and non-Blacks alike with remarkable speed. Equally significant is the degree to which Negro became discredited in the process, reflecting the profound changes taking place in the Black community during the tumultuous years of the civil rights and Black Power movements. The recent success of African American offers an interesting contrast in this regard. Though by no means a modern coinage, African American achieved sudden prominence at the end of the 1980s when several Black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, championed it as an alternative ethnonym for Americans of African descent. The appeal of this term is obvious, alluding as it does not to skin color but to an ethnicity constructed of geography, history, and culture, and it won rapid acceptance in the media alongside similar forms such as Asian American, Hispanic American, and Italian American. But unlike what happened a generation earlier, African American has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive. The difference may well lie in the fact that the campaign for African American came at a time of relative social and political stability, when Americans in general and Black Americans in particular were less caught up in issues involving radical change than they were in the 1960s.....
Of course, the fact remains that a kid born in apartheid South Africa and raised in a suburb that excluded Jackie Robinson should be relatively aware of the significance of his conduct. It's interesting that he would decide to strike a blow for white Africans on MLK day, but by no means commendable.
posted by subgenius at 9:11 AM on January 24, 2004


Rou_Xenophobe: I don't know if you've read my earlier comments, but I'd be very interested to read your response to them, and especially my second one, which discusses people in Africa descended from immigrants (white/European immigrants in particular, but there are others -- Lebanese in West Africa and South Asians in eastern and southern Africa come to mind; cf. Mississippi Masala) and their issues with race, identity, and social acceptance both in Africa and the United States. To me, the issue is not how much of a euphemism "African American" is, but that its non-literal use as one denies its application to actual people (admittedly a minority among Americans) who wish to use it to describe themselves, and plausibly so. There have been non-black people who have called Africa their home since before the United States existed; to deny their descendants who move to the United States the name of African is to deny that history and that reality.

subgenius: I'm sure young Trevor has a more intimate knowledge of what race, ethnicity, and the word "African" mean in South Africa than any of us. That doesn't mean that he has any more of a clue what they mean in America than Americans do. I assume he and his cohorts chose MLK Day simply because that's the day that the award in question is issued.
posted by skoosh at 9:37 AM on January 24, 2004


skoosh, I see little reason to impute any interesting or good-political-statement motive to young Trevor. It seems clear from the described content of the posters that it was just a buttheaded stunt.

I don't think that using African-American as a synonym for black denies much of anything to anyone. People from Algeria can still call themselves Algerian-American or Arab-American or Berber-American or whatever, just like people who call themselves Irish-American or Polish-American or Italian-American. Nonblacks from Africa should have recourse to any of the various country-specific terms unless their last ancestor from Africa was so long ago that they don't know where it was.

The catch is that, yes, Africa is a continent. But it's glaringly obvious that people who are descended from abducted slaves are unlikely to know whether they're Yoruba-Americans or Guinean-Americans or whatever, and that even to the extent that people do know, it denies the major force of their common heritage of being held in bondage for a few hundred years.

That said, it's not something I feel strongly about. My point was mainly that these kids were not striking a much-needed blow against a repressive regime of political correctness that was crushing their spirits and freedom by calling an award "Distinguished African-American" instead of "Distinguished Black," they were just being jackasses who don't particularly need or deserve anyone's congratulations.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2004


African-Amercian: a term wherein black people in the United States are again told that they are not regular Americans like everyone else, but are in fact modified Americans. Not real Americans, but African-Americans.

agreed. I wouldn't want to be called a German-Indian-Irish-Scottish-American, just call me an American (although not too loudly, i'm kind of ashamed of it lately).

And Substrate has a good point too. I would be embarrased to receive a distinguished white boy award. How would you be eligible for that prize? maybe it has something to do with the size of your pickup.
posted by schlaager at 12:13 PM on January 24, 2004


Races, as they have been previously conceived, do not really exist. We are arguing over the fallout from this recently discovered scientific truth.

Skin color, as a metric for distinguishing among human genetic groups, is a quite feeble measure - close to meaningless, even.
posted by troutfishing at 9:02 PM on January 24, 2004


troutfishing: on the plus side, hesitant medical researchers are trying to explain why groupings, or clusters of medical conditions *should* be taken into account by race.

For example: blacks "as a group" suffer a far higher incidence of high blood pressure then "the population at large" or "other racial groups." But knowing this actually *helps* the situation, because information about high blood pressure can be targeted to those who need it most.

So, if you watch BET, for example, you will see frequent public service *and* pharmaceutical company advertisements about the perils and treatments of high blood pressure (probably saving a whole bunch of lives.)

And, when the word gets out to doctors, once again black people are "targeted" as an "at risk" group for high blood pressure, so their doctors pay close attention to early warning signs, proper medication and treatment, and preventative health care measures, such as diet, etc.

So *in this case*, while there are still a large number of blacks for whom high blood pressure isn't an issue, in the number game of health care, it is a good thing to be safe than sorry. I doubt anybody resents getting a little extra health care attention because of the color of their skin.
posted by kablam at 6:15 AM on January 25, 2004


In case you're still reading this thread, Rapid Offensive Unit: I can't say I agree with paragraph 1, but I know that that's certainly a possibility. I just didn't read the article's description of the poster of Trevor ("The poster pictured junior Trevor Richards, 16, smiling and making a thumbs up sign. A message at the top encouraged votes for him for next year's award") as unambiguously showing it to be nothing more than a dumb stunt. Silly stunts per se are not incompatible with a serious message. It would be nice if we could have direct quotes from the perpetrators to illuminate this, but unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. In any case, I mention this alleged motive only as a possibility, not a certainty.

I tend to disagree with paragraph 2. Denying an African identity to, say, Ugandans who aren't black (in the American English definition) has had actual real-world consequences for those Ugandans. African-ness is important as an identity in itself, separate from particular national identities, much like "Asian American" is an identity that has an importance distinct from the various national identities of people of Asian descent. It's not that Trevor (and the thrAee other people I personally met in my freshman year at college, as well as the several other people that other posters have mentioned) don't have names that they could apply to themselves -- if nothing else, they could call themselves "Darin" -- but that the way they think of themselves is difficult to adequately express in the United States because of the whole "African American = black" thing.

I completely agree with paragraph 3. I'm not saying that black people shouldn't be called African American. I'm just saying that the term "African American" should include non-black people from Africa as well; it should be a term of geographic origin, not race, as are other, similar terms.

I also agree with the first sentence of paragraph 4, though I have reservations about the rest of that paragraph.

* irrespective of whatever merit and problems a "distinguished african-american student" award has; me, i'd be happier giving an mlk-day award to a student who'd done the most distinguished service wrt civil rights or racial equality...

Ditto. And ditto to The Trout as well.
posted by skoosh at 6:36 AM on January 25, 2004


All I can do is think back to when I was 16. If there was a poster of me smiling and giving the hugely-uncool, mega-uncool, FONZIE-level-uncool thumbs-up sign, rest assured that I would have been involved in some sort of lame-brained stunt. And I was pretty serious for a 16-year-old boy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:27 AM on January 25, 2004


Okay.

When I was a high school junior I took the PSATs. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out a few months later that my scores placed me in the running for two monetary awards: the National Merit Scholarship (open to all test-taking students) and the National Achievement Scholarship (open to all test-taking black students). Winning either would've been a wonderful boon, considering that there was no way in hell I would've been able to afford college without financial aid.

So let me get this straight... according to some posters in this thread, it would have been better for me to eschew the shot at the National Achievement award because it was demeaning? I should have thrown away one of my chances at free money for college on principle? Sure, I may have ended up as a fry cook in a mall food court, but gosh darn it, I could've been a fry cook with pride instead of the lowly college graduate I am today-- is that what you're saying? I'm just trying to understand here. That so many of you seem so willing to tell me what I should and should not do in the course of my daily life... well, it seems a bit patronizing to me. Anyone care to explain? Because I'd accept money from the goddamned Klan so long as there were no strings attached and it gave me a chance to better myself. Even worse, I somehow believe that I would survive such an incident with my ego intact. Clearly, I am in need of an ethics lesson from the enlightened denizens of metafilter.

Regarding the main post: it sounds like stupid kids goofing around for the most part, although I find it hard to believe that anyone could do such a thing completely innocently. It smacks of either just-got-here-yesterday naivete or a willful ignorance about the realities of American history (then again, so does the perversion of Martin Luther King's legacy, but I've seen that a few times in this thread alone). It's a shame the school overreacted instead of turning it into a teaching moment.
posted by tyro urge at 4:41 PM on January 25, 2004


kablam - you're exactly right on that (see long comment below)

A non metafilter member who studies genetics (who would be a good specialist to have as a member, in my opinion) emailed me to correct this statement of mine, specifically this paragraph : " In raw statistical terms, it is likely that I share less in common, genetically, with my fellow "white" next door neighbor (I am "white" as well) than with any randomly selected african."

That formulation is WRONG ! (see below)

I told Courtney that I'd post our exchange, so here it is :

Subject: troutfishing's comment on white diversity was not correct

Sorry to email you this, but I can't post on Metafilter, and something you wrote hs been really bugging me. I study genetics, so I can state with some knowledge that your statement from http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/30901 about two white people being less genetically similar than a white and a black person is backwards. I have seen this come up only a few times, so I hope it is not a common misconception yet. Here is what you said: "This can be expressed by the following truism - In raw statistical terms, it is likely that I share less in common, genetically, with my fellow "white" next door neighbor (I am "white" as well) than with any randomly selected african." Any two unrelated black people are statistically likely to be less genetically similar than either one of them and a white person. But this statement cannot be reversed. You actually state the reason for this further down: "Further, Africa is highly genetically diverse - being the birthplace of the human species ; it contains the highest levels of genetic diversity of any region on the planet." You can think of the amount of genetic diversity present in the white population on a scale from 1-10. So the two most genetically different white individuals (excluding those with major chromosomal disruptions) would get a difference score of 10. When you use the same scale to measure the genetic diversity of africans, you will get difference scores in the hundreds and thousands. So, genetic differences between unrealted black people dwarf genetic differences between unrelated white people. Another way to think of it is to consider that white people are thought to have come from a very small set of black ancestors. There has been a population explosion of white people since then, but not enough time has passed for there to be comparatively many genetic changes. So, you can think of white people as being (genetically, anyway) a small population of black people. Then the statement becomes, "Any two unrelated black people are statistically likely to be less genetically similar than either on of them and a black person from a small north-african population." Probably not much less similar. It is a way of stating that black people are as genetically distinct from each other as they are from white people (who are genetically very alike). So, you and your next door neighbor are probably very genetically similar, much more similar than you both are to Tina Turner. And you and your neighbor and Tina are all probably similary distant from Nelson Mandela, and all four of you are statistically likely to be about as distant from Michael Jordan, etc.

Ok, I feel better now. Courtney

P.S. Keep in mind that all of these genetic differences encompass far less than 1% of human DNA.

Courtney -

Thanks for writing to me. I like to make my facts and assertions as accurate as I can, and so I'll post your email comment to me on that Metafilter 30901 thread, with my reply as well, if that's OK with you. On preview, I think you are right. I believe that I should have formulated that statement as : "In raw statistical terms, it is likely that I share less in common, genetically, with my fellow "white" next door neighbor (I am "white" as well) than with Africans as an overall group" - I've heard this formulation, or something like it, expressed actually by geneticists. But certainly not as I tried to express that, incorrectly, on Metafilter. I was so caught up, I'd say, in debunking the tired myth of "race" - which is a pet peeve of mine - that I spent too little time considering the logical consistency of what I was saying. What I was trying to convey - but did inaccurately - was the fact that genetic diversity among two randomly selected humans from anywhere on the globe is likely to be greater than any supposed difference between one's self defined "racial" group (which may or may not have validity in genetic terms - skin color is a real expression of genetic variation, but as for the "Hispanic" race, well....I have my doubts, though there are plenty of distinct "racial" groups within that wide net, "Hispanic") and any other "racial" group. Or : genetic variation between human groups (which can be shown to have some degree of genetic uniqueness) is minor compared to genetic variation between individuals selected at random from anywhere on Earth. I believe that would be correct - But if you see a mistake in my facts or reasoning, let me know, and I'll correct that again ! Thanks for your feedback. Best, Bruce

Bruce,

your statement, "In raw statistical terms, it is likely that I share less in common, genetically, with my fellow "white" next door neighbor (I am "white" as well) than with Africans as an overall group", still isn't right. The most basic way to think of it is "People not recently from Africa: genetically similar. People from Africa: genetically varied." So you and your white or indian or asian neighbor are genetically similar. You are likely to be less similar to someone from Africa (not the white folks, of course, who are recent immigrants to Africa). But a person from Africa is likely to be as genetically distant from his next door neighbor as he is from you. In the most oversimplified shorthand: Black people different, everyone else the same. If genetics were colors, the spectrum of black people would cover every color in the rainbow, and asians, hispanics, caucasians, indians, etc. would all be shades of red.

Everything else in your email seems correct. I'm don't agree that race is a myth, but I do think that genetic differences between groups of people have only the most minor of impacts when compared to differences in history, culture, and individual experiences.

Courtney

P.S. Feel free to post this response.


Courtney - I'm sorry I took so long to get back to you. When I got your latest email, I read it and then did some digging on the Net for more info.

On the basis of that, I decided that my second (re)formulation was correct : note that I'm comparing my genetic difference with my neighbor to my genetic difference with Africans as an overall group. So, even though the population groups living on continent of Africa express the greatest human genetic variation, this is beside the point for the fact that, first of all, genetic variation between human groups is only very, very slight* whereas genetic variation among individual humans, although considerably less than among any other mammalian species (due to the relatively recent migration out of African and the apparently small size of the founding population group), is considerably greater. So think of it this way - the set of African genetic variation is wide. But - take the midpoint of that set (which I was referring to in my "as an overall group" formulation, though this may have confused you - it may not be as well implied as I thought) and compare it to the midpoint of, say "all white north Americans" ; there will only be a tiny difference between those midpoints. But the genetic variation between my neighbor and I will be considerable, even though we may nonetheless still share some group specific traits (lighter skin, no sickle-cell mutation to cope with the malaria virus, and so on).

It was a sneaky formulation, as I was comparing my difference with an individual and my difference with the midpoint of a set (if you correctly interpreted my intent) .

Out of the various articles I culled, I like this one the best :

"People from distant lands have strikingly similar genetic traits, study reveals "

( From the Stanford Report, on what I dubbed the "Rosenberg Study" (for the fact that Noah Rosenberg seemed to have grabbed most of the publicity arising from the study)

Link : http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2003/january8/genetics-18.html

Calling race a "myth" is more of a political point. But the technical definition of race - an interbreeding subspecies genetically distinct from the main species - is rather vague. I thought it interesting that Rosenberg and his team found five distinct different genetic groups. But these genetic grouping do not - as Nick Kristof of the New York Times noted in his recent column - always correspond with skin color, as Kristof discovered ; his DNA, when tested, revealed him to be more "black" than "white". So skin color may be a poor determinant of "race".

But I use political talking point ( "Race is a myth" ) for the fact that "races" ( those five genetic groups ) still have only the tiniest of genetic differences with each other, while the differences between randomnly selected individuals are (though still small overall) comparatively great.

This fact puts a lie to those theories of racial superiority which endlessly recrudesce, on the American landscape and elsewhere. Before the discovery of DNA, there was far less scientific basis on which to judge the claims of the Eugenicists, the Phrenologists and various other physical typologists (Endomorphs, Ectomorphs, and mesomorphs, anyone?), and so on, of the early 20th Century. Now, thanks to Watson and Crick, we know those claims to be bunk - although, a new type of empirically based eugenics a la Gattaca is now emerging......

Anyway, I posted this on Metafilter - a bit late, but my response demanded a bit of time. Now, it's permanently (as permanent as electronic storage is, anyway) engraved on the public record - a mistake ! (oh my). Best, Bruce

* I was interested to discover that, prior to the study done by Rosenberg et.al. cited above, genetic variation between individuals was believed to represent 85% of overall variation while inter-group variation represented 15% of overall variation but - as a result of that study - the proportions had become quite a bit more extreme, with individual genetic variation now held to comprise about 94% of overall variation - while inter-group variation had shrunk to 6% !
posted by troutfishing at 11:11 AM on January 28, 2004


[ The exchange continued though, for my new formulation was still wrong ]

"Bruce,

Your reformulated statement is not correct. From the Science article referenced in the link you sent me:

"The average proportion of genetic differences between individuals from different human populations only slightly exceeds that between unrelated individuals from a single population."

This is because you have genetic differences between populations in addition to genetic differences between individuals. I think this gets confused in the way these studies are presented in the media. As you said in your email:

" I was interested to discover that, prior to the study done by Rosenberg et.al. cited above, genetic variation between individuals was believed to represent 85% of overall variation while inter-group variation represented 15% of overall variation but - as a result of that study - the proportions had become quite a bit more extreme, with individual genetic variation now held to comprise about 94% of overall variation - while inter-group variation had shrunk to 6% ! "

Genetic variation between individuals and inter-group variation are measurements of two different things. Genetic variation between individuals is a measure of the range of differences between individuals of a given population. This is measured by looking at short segments of the genome known to be different in different people. Feldman looked at about 400 of these segments. A certain number of differences are found in each segment. Genetic variation between individuals of a population is the total of all of the differences found in the population, so it is a sum value. Inter-group variation is a measure of the differences between two groups' genetic variation between individuals. This is measured by looking for gene sequences at each of the ~400 sites that are present in one population, but entirely absent in the other population. This value is a difference of sums. It does not give any indication of average differences between individuals, only diferences in total range of variation. To use your numbers above, if you set the two most genetically different people, one black, one white, at a difference of 100%, the absolute most different another white person could be from the first one is 94%. This tells you nothing of average values, as differences that are very rare are counted the same as common differences. So if a particular sequence was found in all but one of the Africans studied, and one of the Europeans, it falls into genetic variation between individuals rather than inter-group variation, even though it is very likely that Africans and Europeans would differ at this site. So the total population variances tell you very little in terms of individuals.

Also, your usage of midpoint was not correct. The average or midpoint of a genetic population would be an individual with the most common nucleotide in each position of his or her genome rather than a collection of all possible sequences. So, for each of the genome segments studied by Feldman et al, that individual would have the most prevalent sequence for his or her population (or race). But that individual would still only have one set of DNA, so all of the differences could not be represented by a single individual. So you cannot use population variance values, which would be comparing you to your neighbor and then comparing you to all the DNA in Africa. You would still have individual differences plus population differences. Comparing you to your neighbor and then you to a "midpoint" African, you are probably more similar to your white neighbor."

[ my final reply, though Courtney really got the last word ]

"Courtney - Three strikes. I'm out ! I'll post this comment, as well, to that Metafilter thread so that you can have the final word. I don't know why I kept on arguing my case, except that I usually have a decent overall conceptual grasp of scientific issues ( obviously not in genetics ! ) and also for the fact that I spend a lot of time debating with people on Metafilter who argue either against the very reality or possibility of Anthropogenic Climate Change or against the threat it poses to both human civilization and to global species diversity - and so I've developed the habit, through those debates, of assuming that my understanding is in very close accord with mainstream scientific knowledge and, because of that, refusing to budge an inch from my positions ( unless confronted by credible information to the contrary ) .

I'm not unhappy that I argued my case for so long though - it's been very educational ( thank you ) but I hope I haven't wasted your time.

Best, Bruce"
posted by troutfishing at 1:11 PM on January 29, 2004


tyro: Although you're probably not reading this, I'd like to think you are, so my late-night indulgence here isn't wasted. Also, you have no email address in your profile.

I don't think that anyone's saying that you, personally, should have refused a possible $2,500 award out of principle, especially if they're not your principles at stake. Even if you opposed all institutionally imposed racial and ethnic differentiation and differential treatment (like me, for instance), we all have to make moral compromises in order to get by in this imperfect world, and accepting a financial award partly because of your (self-defined? externally defined?) membership in a historically oppressed minority group neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Yes, you gained a slight advantage over people who can't or won't benefit from the smaller candidate pool for the NAS, but if you can live with that, so can I.

The interesting thing, though, is that to me, "National Achievement Scholarship" doesn't sound as condescending as "Outstanding African-American Student Award" does. Do you get that same sense? If it explicitly mentioned race in its name, would pride have entered into it at all? Would you take the award from the KKK (or your high school) if it were called something less than neutral, like the Amos N' Andy Memorial Scholarship?
posted by skoosh at 11:23 PM on February 4, 2004


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