African-American or Black - Either Term Acceptable

By Freeman, Gregory | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

African-American or Black - Either Term Acceptable


Freeman, Gregory, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


I REMEMBER a comic I used to watch on television when I was a teen-ager.

His schtick was to talk about what he could be called. "My name is Ray Jay Johnson Jr.," he'd say. "But you can call me Ray. Or you can call me Jay. Or you can call me Ray Jay . . . ."

He'd go on and on with names that were OK to call him. Then he'd end it with, "but you doesn't has to call me Johnson!"

That old routine came to mind the other day when I read about a Gallup Poll that suggested that while some people are confused about what to call U.S. citizens of African origin - "black" or "African-American" - the majority of those described by such words find either term acceptable.

Overall, 16 percent said they preferred to be called black, and 17 percent preferred African-American. But 58 percent of those surveyed said it did not matter which term was used. Three percent said they didn't like either term, and 6 percent were unsure.

Interestingly, the difference wasn't that sharp even among those under the age of 30, whom you might expect to embrace the newer term, African-American, much more than others. Among this group, 21 percent preferred the term African-American while 9 percent preferred the term black. But a clear majority of this group - 58 percent - said that either term was OK. The remaining 12 percent were unsure.

Regular readers of this column know that I've used the terms interchangeably. I wasn't surveyed, but had I been, I would have been in the "doesn't matter" category. I must admit to being a bit amused at times by some non-blacks who use the term black in front of me, then catch themselves quickly, apologize, and then say, "I meant African-American." I know they mean no harm, that they're afraid that they've been terribly insensitive. Like most people, I have more important things to worry about than whether someone calls me black or African-American.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was one of the biggest proponents of the term "African-American" a few years ago. Jackson had suggested that the term was necessary to remind blacks of their roots.

Although some groups have used hyphenated terms for many years - Mexican-American and Asian-American, for example - some non-blacks have taken offense at the term African-American, suggesting that the term is more a political statement than anything else. …

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