Conversations about race are becoming more prevalent in the media as the Black Lives Matter movement resurges and encourages people of the African diaspora to embrace the diversity within the Black community. This movement has made non-Black Americans more aware of an ongoing discussion within the Black community regarding the use of the terms “Black” versus “African American.”
While Black people in America and other parts of the world share the common experiences of racial discrimination and systematic oppression, it is unanimously understood that the Black experience is not monolithic. For this reason, among others, people prefer to claim their Blackness with terms that reflect their personal identities, which are shaped by their life experiences, ancestry and ethnicity.
Native New Yorker Dominique Neblung was born to Haitian parents and prefers to be identified as a Black woman.
“I find using the term African American for all Black people negates the experience, culture and to some degree, history of those of us who come from elsewhere,” Neblung said. “For example, my Haitian culture informs almost everything about me. I take pride in it and to just group every one of our race with that ‘catch-all’ term is an injustice.”
In agreement with Neblung’s reasoning, Dornzella Milligan said that the term “African American” when used in reference to descendants of enslaved Africans in America, enables division within the Black population. The former administrative assistant to the racial justice organizer with VCS Inc. explained that this division leads to a decrease in political autonomy and prevents unification among the Black community in the work of liberation, equity, and fair and just treatment.
“Systemic racism has a way of creating division among us so that we can’t really tell if these labels are a part of the connection you want to be a part of, or if you don’t want to be associated with Black Americans because of how we’re treated in this country,” Milligan said.
The United States Census Bureau recognizes Black or African American people as those “having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.” This definition can pose a conflict for those that are a part of the African diaspora but do not consider themselves to be African because of their ethnicity or nationality.
“Though we as a people originate from Africa, some of us are culturally different from the experiences and traditions of African Americans,” Neblung said. “We have the commonality of being descendants of enslaved people and have suffered the remnants of systemic racism, our family and life experiences differ enough that it affects how we view and take on the world and our surroundings.”
A Gallup survey from 2007 concluded that there is “no strong consensus among the Black American community for how their racial group should be described.” In October 2020, among the 65 people who responded to an informal survey conducted by this reporter, the term “Black” was preferred over “African American” or other labels.
North Carolina resident Tanza Christie-Moye identifies as an African American woman even though she was born on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. She said the term “African American” speaks to the culture of her ancestors originally being from both Africa and America. Her choice is also based on the fact that she is a naturalized American citizen.
Contrarily, Stony Brook University student Goka Lee-Maeba noted a preference for the term “Black” as a citizen of Nigeria temporarily living in the United States. She said that the term “African American” is appropriate only when referring to an American of African descent through the Atlantic slave trade.
“You can be Black and not be African American,” Lee-Maeba said. “Black people live around the globe. They could be Jamaican American or Ghanaian American, or just African, or Caribbean. ‘Black’ has to do with your race, not ethnicity.”
While the participants had notably different preferences, it may be important to note that the majority acknowledged that there is a difference between the two terms.
“African American means you have roots that trace back directly to Africa,” said Skidmore College freshman Grace Burnett. “‘Black’ is more all-encompassing for those with family coming from other areas that were colonized, like Haiti,” with large populations of people with African ancestry.
Ndidi Massay was born in Nigeria and expressed a preference for the term “Black.” She noted the variety of cultures and experiences held by African Americans versus those with ethnicity from other countries in the African diaspora.
In reference to her own culture, Massay said, “It’s a different generational experience because we did not come from slavery. Our inherited culture is from Africa. It’s not from the enslaved experience here. That’s what I think the difference is.”
Elementary school teacher Brittany Barrow said she identifies as African American because the United States has been home to her family for several generations. Her response echoed that of the majority who do not recognize the terms “Black” and “African American” as synonymous. Barrow said “Black” refers to skin tone while African American refers to her family’s culture and origin.
“I’m Black and I’m African American. But it’s important to know not all Black people are African American,” Barrow said. “Those words are not interchangeable. I’m comfortable with both terms because I classify as both – as long as the B in ‘Black’ gets capitalized.”