A Misqualified Identity?

17 Apr
Black vs African-American

Image courtesy of Google Images.

The term ‘African-American’ is loosely used by black Americans to define themselves. It is often used in association with race as if it in itself is a race, when it it is not (i.e. black is the race while the above might be the Nationality). At the same token, taking away the political correctness of the term, can one ever truly have more than one nationality? One can only enjoy citizenship(s) of a country and be a national of only one. So ultimately, how correct is it – even politically – to be called an ‘African-American’? I realise this is a very contentious topic, however, so please excuse my enquiry in advance if you feel ‘attacked’ as I express my personal opinion. I do not intend to offend anybody, nor do I claim to be an authority on the subject. This blog post is a result of discussions amongst peers and therefore, and though the considerations brought forward are from an educated perspective, no intensive historical/sociological/other research was conducted (it is, after all, a blog, and not an academic paper). Ok, that’s the disclaimer taken care of. Moving on…

Being African means different things to different people. Some argue that it is about being born on African soil, others say it is being born to African parents, others say it is about having a knowledge of, a respect for, and actively participating in the traditional beliefs held by Africans, while others still say, it is merely about having geneological roots that trace one back to Africa. Considering all these factors, being dark-skinned/black is also associated with being African. Logically, this is because black people originate in Africa, just as being caucasian/white is associated with being European. The black or white terms each have their own historical associations to which every individual can choose to identify. Hence, mixed race people can either choose to be labelled black or white. But is being an African simply a matter of skin color? And if so, how does this affect all the other aspects expected of one who claims to be African?

If being black is associated with being African, the case would then be made that it is NOT incorrect for African-Americans to identify themselves as such. While there may be historical reasons for it, where though, would this leave white people born in Africa? In such an instance, they would identify themselves as white/caucasian Africans. However, having spoken with a few other born and bred Africans, they have an issue with Africanism being determined merely by skin colour. Please understand, this is not the opinion of ALL Africans, but a select group. The concensus is that black Americans have a right to identify themselves with Africa, but not to misleadingly use the term ‘African’ with regards to race. Yes, there is politics involved, but the simple fact is that Africanism is an identity used by nationals of all African countries, of every single race (black, white or mixed race) and therefore should not be used to define a racial group.

To bring the debate into context, I began seriously contemplating this issue as I was assisting visiting black American students with their class enrollments and registration. They identified themselves as ‘African-Americans’ yet for many, this was their first time ever setting foot on the African continent. What was truly intriguing was the fact that in conversation, some of these students with their 4.0 GPA’s studying at reputable institutions such as Princeton, Harvard and Stanford universities, repeatedly referred to Africa as if it, in itself, was a country! I was aghast! I asked a few why they attached the word ‘African’ to their ‘American’ identity and the overall response was “It’s WHO I am and WHERE I come from.”

Now forgive my confusion, but simply because we share a skin colour and historically, black Americans were in fact Africans, actually resident in many African countries (e.g. Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, etc) before the Europeans and other African slave traders captured, shackled and shipped them off to a life of forced labour on other continents, that does not necessarily make the current generation ‘African-American’. While their heritage may incorporate Africa albeit in a very watered down sense (somewhere way way wayyyyyy down the geneological family tree), I am baffled by people who claim an identity they know little to nothing about. Granted, some of the students had read up a little about South African black culture (perhaps aiming to somehow fit in), but did that entitle them to use the ‘African’ label? I am no authority, as I mentioned earlier, but the arguments out there are valid: that a true African, for a start, is born in Africa, just as a true America is born on their soil, a true African – as expected by fellow Africans – will at least speak an African dialect (so perhaps, for example, your French should include the phonology, grammar and vocabulary of others in your geographical African location, if you are for example, from Congo Brazaville), and an African abroad, claiming the label, for example, would follow certain African associated rituals, cultural practices and beliefs.

I have a Seychellean grandparent and family I have never met from there, but certainly do not define myself as a Seychellean-South African. My reasoning is that this would be hypocritical on my part since I have never been to the Seychelles and I do not even know what languages they speak, nor do I have an inkling about their cultural practices. I personally prefer to say “I am South African (with Seychellean ancestry)”. The bracketed bit would only ever be added if I were asked my heritage. I guess the gripe many Africans have is that for a start, ‘African-American’ is a politically loaded term and therefore, especially in social settings, comes across as unnecessarily ‘making a statement’ in a non-aggressive and unprovoked environment. One would not go about saying I am “black/African Scottish” but rather, “I am Scottish”. Firstly, because your skin colour speaks for itself – black, and secondly – because you are born in Scotland – your nationality IS Scottish. So while your parents may be African, and you have never been exposed to anything African (as qualified by the valid arguments for Africanism above), you would be a “Scottish person (with African heritage)” (and again, last bit added, only if people are curious as to how and why one could be a black Scottsman). The question, somewhere along the line, also arose that “why are Americans the only ones who insist on double-barrelling their identity?” Politics? Who knows. Is it right? Who’s to say?

So while the issue sends people into fits of rage over identity, with black Americans being accused of clinging to an extremely diluted African ancestry, perhaps for lack of what they deem their own ‘worthwhile’ black American identity(which is pretty strong and has influenced alot of African behaviour, dress, speech, etc), it is worth thinking about. Some would ask; “Why not simply embrace the current black American identity or morph it into what you want it to be as opposed to appropriating that of a culture you don’t embrace/understand?” The point, a friend of mine said, is that a painful historical past consisting of slavery and humiliation is no reason not to carve out a positive black American identity of their own. One which starts with letting go of attachments to other cultural identities for which current generation are deemed to have little appreciation. “But who’s to say they have no appreciation for the African identity?” I asked. Her response, “In an age where we have Google, amongst many other internet search engines, why are so many black Americans cluesless about African countries, ignorant about Africa’s advancements and asking foreign exchange students to America, stupid questions like; ‘So do you all see lions roaming around your back yards?’, and why do they come to Africa with the arrogance and superiority complex of a citizen of a first world country (which Americans are often accused of exuding and which is deemed un-African)? I AM an absolute African. They are not.” With a huff, she stormed off and I realised, there are wide-ranging reasons people choose to politicize their identity and especially black Americans. Should one condemn them for doing so, or smile at the political correctness and say “From an unjust past to progress” when there is no actual, surface progress, by means of appreciation for the various connotations that are aligned with labelling oneself ‘African’-anything? In the grander scheme of things we are all simply humans, whether black, white, asian, mixed, etc. Is it therefore even necessary to further complicate things by double-barrelling your identity (apart from when filling out necessary legal paperwork related to the collection of demographic information which tries to uncomplicate identities for ease of administration)?

An interesting debate for which I have no answers. A debate, non-the-less, with which I hope you engage in a mature(yes people, no biting each other’s heads off like internet barbarians 😀 ), and expectedly enlightening manner. What are your thoughts?


Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Cultural


Tags: , ,

4 responses to “A Misqualified Identity?

  1. Shelter

    April 19, 2012 at 1:53 am

    I took the time to read your article as you expressed your opinion which you are certainly entitled to have and are free to express and I like wise am free to read part or all if it. My point is being that we are all free to express our thoughts and feelings on a subject, whether warranted or not, shouldn’t one be free to choose how they self identify and express themselves to the world? A person self identifying as African American does nothing to infringe upon anyone’s rights and personal integrity. As an African living in America I actually have a lot of sympathy for ‘people of color’ in this country. For one thing they were brought here against their will and then spent hundreds of years under slavery which created a whole set of problems that are evident even to this day. Then even after slavery ended, they were subject to Jim Crow laws, lynching and all kinds of unfair treatment. And even after the civil rights movement they still suffered all kinds of injustices that are still evident to this very day. My point is they have been in this country for hundreds of years and all they have ever been made to feel is unwelcome, unwanted and sub-human. Listen to the people trying to run for president against Obama, they talk about ‘taking back their country’, ‘what is rightfully theirs’ etc. further escalating the racial divide and sentiment that ‘people of color’ do not belong here. Whether that sentiment is correct or not is another discussion because I also feel strongly about the rights of Native Americans. Anyway, my point is as Africans having endured the injustice of colonialism we ought to be more sympathetic to the plight of Blacks in American and allow them to choose how they express their identity. In addition we need to help them understand various things about the continent. Interestingly enough, not all of them want to be referred to as African American, some want to be called Black, others simply want to be just called American. Either way, it’s up to a person to decide and we should be welcoming and encrouagin especially when people are making a genuine effort to get in touch with their roots.
    Again, just my opinion.

    • DubiousGreen

      May 8, 2012 at 6:02 am

      by extension Jews could also refer to themselves as african because they share a similar background of being ‘othered’?

  2. DubiousGreen

    May 8, 2012 at 5:55 am

    you would find a search for the definition of the term race quite interesting. Nationalities too, can be races i.e. Indian, whereas technically they should be asian….the question becomes what defines race – geography, skin pigmentation, language, geneology, height/weight (as was the case with hutus and tutsis) or a shared culutral or historical background?

    another thing to note is that racial classification was and has always been the domain of racist ‘white’ superiority science. it ws a ‘scientific’ way of enforcing the belief that ‘white’ people are superior.


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