The Pot Calling the Kettle

If my post about “the gay community” demonstrated anything, it was my distrust and even hatred of attempts at being politically correct. The big problem with any sort of political correctness is that it comes across as patronizing, as though a certain segment of society needs protection from “the white man”.

Having gone to Simon Fraser University, a self-described “radical campus” (which has become a lot less radical recently, it seems), I’m pretty used to this. Canadian schools teach that Canada, unlike our disgusting unwashed brethren to the south, is a “cultural mosaic”, and that your skin colour or religion or anything matters, so long as you like Canada (the ultimate irony being that when something challenges that, that gets tossed out the window).

One term that has really bugged me for a number of years is the term “African-American”. It has to be one of the single-most two-faced terms ever, because it  hints at being neutral while still pointing out a differentiation. It also tends to be wildly inaccurate; Martin Luther King Jr, Barack Obama, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Frederick Douglass were all born in the United States of America, which in my mind, should make them all American. But no, the hyphenation is still used in assessing them all; they’re all African-American. While I suspect some of it has to do with personal preference, I think a lot of it still is super-imposed. The term itself didn’t really come about until the mid-20th century, and even then it was used as a substitution. African-American was originally a substitute for Negro (Spanish for “black”), which itself was a substitution for that bad word “nigger” (itself, interestingly, a bastardization of the Spanish “negro”). To call a spade a spade, African-American is just a substitution for nigger.

That is the real core of the term African-American. It isn’t meant to denote someone’s lineage or origins or anything like that; when you call someone an African-American, you are only referring to the fact that they’re black. You don’t care if they’re from the Caribbean or Britain or anywhere else, you’re just using the term because that’s what you call them (you’re also assuming that everyone from Africa is black, which is racist).

Having taken a slew of courses about nineteenth century American literature and a course about “black” identity (through autobiography), it is an issue that I’ve dedicated a lot of thought to. What I think it comes down to is intentionality; words like “African-American” or actions like removing the term “nigger” from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer (and replacing it with the word “slave”, as though being “Slave Jim” is better than being “Nigger Jim”) are just PC attempts at softening a blow and either saying “this never happened” or “it’s not about race”. It’s two-faced because it is about race. That’s why, to me, a white upper-middle class university graduate, the term “black” makes more sense than any other term under the sun. I don’t think it’s racist to notice someone else’s race but that it is racist to pretend that Samuel L. Jackson isn’t black. People aren’t born racist, but kids still notice race (a friend recounted asking her parents why his new friend was black which is, at it’s core, an innocent question) because race exists. It’s not racist to say that Barack Obama is black, while it is obviously racist to say that all blacks are good at basketball or all Filipinos are friendly or white men can’t jump. There’s a great moment in The (UK) Office, where David Brent tells a joke about a black man’s cock. He is reprimanded when someone complains, and he defends his actions, saying that it wasn’t racist because having a large penis isn’t an insult. Of course, that’s not the point. Racism isn’t about insulting someone for their race, it’s about generalizing individuals based on their race. The difference should be an obvious one. When you say “this person is African-American”, you’re suggesting that they can (or do) trace their roots back to mother Africa — odds are you say this not because they can or self-identify as an African-American, but because they’re black. When you say so and so is “black”, you’re simply commenting on the colour of their skin.

The term “African-American” is racist and two-faced and while America is fraught with more overtly racist terms and individuals, it seems like an outdated term that we should stop using. Like a lot of Canadians, my family hasn’t been here for long (I’m second-generation). It genuinely bugs me that because I’m white, I’m seen as more Canadian than individuals who were born here but are of East Indian or Chinese descent; terms like African-American or Chinese-Canadian or just about any hyphenation, especially when imposed by another, is just racist and nothing but.

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