Catherine Parker
Catherine Parker

“African-American”: meaning what, exactly?

One of my favourite stories illustrating the fragility of US race relations is that of Trevor Richards, a South African who emigrated with his parents from Johannesburg to the States in 1998. Six years later, at his school in Omaha, Nebraska, fifteen year old Trevor (with the help of two classmates) nominated himself as a candidate for their school’s annual “Distinguished African-American” award. The result was complete uproar. The school freaked out, everyone got their knickers in a knot, and Trevor and his two classmates were suspended. Why? Because Trevor is white.

Everyone knows that when someone says “African-American” here, they mean “black”. If you’re going to use such an ultra-politically correct term then, how refreshing it is to see it being treated with a suitably pedantic response. Trevor was born in Africa, and spent nine years of his life in Johannesburg before starting the US citizenship process. In what way, then, is he not an “African-American”? The fact that he is arguably more African than any of his presumably American-born black classmates obviously struck a nerve. The school and some of its students were insulted by Richards’ nomination, labelling his actions as “offensive”. Closer to the truth, I am sure, is that people felt threatened when he challenged the notion that someone is only African if they are black. So let’s call a spade a spade: if the award was for black people only, it should have been called the “Distinguished Black Student” award. No doubt the school did not want to be seen as racist, but if anything, the only thing racist about this story is that only the 56 black people in his school at the time were eligible. Can you imagine the outcry if it there was a “Distinguished European-American” award?

I know it’s not that simple. As I wrote in my previous post, the issue of minority rights is huge here, and people are extremely sensitive about it. Everyone is at pains not to be seen as discriminatory for fear of punishment or retribution. But the folly of political correctness is that it loves black and white classifications in a world that is a million shades of grey. I love when I am confronted with an official-looking form here that asks me to tick whether I’m Asian, African etc. I tick “African” every time, because what else am I? My family has been in South Africa for 320 years; nowhere else is my home. Some may argue that the term “African-American” refers to people whose family is originally from Africa, and that mine is originally from Europe. But at the end of the day, aren’t we all from Sterkfontein anyway?

I suppose the other thing about the term “African-American” is that it feels slightly condescending. It’s perfectly ok to say I am white here, so if I were black, how is that different? Using “African-American” feels like a euphemism, which implies that black people should be ashamed to say they are black. And that goes directly against all that political correctness aims to achieve. As historian Jacques Barzun said, “Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organises hatred.” Especially in a racial context, it encourages stereotypes, and further entrenches the illusion that we are on opposing sides.

Although modern America was built largely by the immigrant, today there is distinct national pride and unity in the fact that one is simply “an American”. What’s ironic is that although minority groups strived for decades for this equality, today terms such as “African-American” only serve to further entrench the divide they so fervently sought to eradicate.

When I tell people I’m South African, I often get the response: “Yeah, but you’re white. I mean where are you really from?” To that, my response is, “Well, you’re American, but where are you really from? I bet my ancestors have been in South Africa longer than yours have been here.” It’s a pointless argument though, because the whole issue is so subjective. I feel that I am certainly no less African than a black American who has never even set foot on the African continent. I may originally be from Europe, but I am first and foremost a born-and-bred South African. Perhaps the deeper issue here is that a black American should not consider themselves to be “African-American”, but rather should recognise that they are simply, like the rest of their fellow citizens around them, an American.