I was sitting in history class listening to a discussion on the Civil Rights Movement when one of my white peers -- a close friend of mine actually –– paused in the middle of her sentence, shifted uncomfortably in her seat, cleared her throat, and nervously uttered the words, “African-American.”
Her eyes quickly moved from her textbook to me as she desperately sought assurance in her attempt to political correctness. In that moment, all I could think was, “What the hell, why couldn’t she just say black??”
I don’t like being called African-American.
Yes, my ancestors were ultimately stripped from their home continent of Africa and shipped over here to do hard labor for the white supremacists that entirely constituted our country, but those supremacists made sure that all ties to my African heritage were stripped –– and they’re just now trying to force that identity back onto us.
And yes, “African-American History Month” exists, and I excitedly celebrate it annually. I celebrate and appreciate the idea that my blood originates from the continent of Africa. I love wearing African braids and celebrating Black Excellence –– but that doesn’t mean that “African-American” needs to constitute the entirety of my identity. I personally believe that “African-American” and “Black American” are two similar, yet incredibly different things.
One of my problems with the label, “African-American” is that most people who use it assume that the title “African” asserts one’s skin color.
If they’re black, they’re African. And if they’re white, they’re not.
“African-American” should refer to those who have close relatives or feel that they identify closely with their African heritage. So, therefore, a white girl directly from South Africa can be assumed as “African-American,” but the black girl whose great-grandmother who was born in Haiti cannot be assumed as African-American. Africa is a continent, not a skin color. (And while it seems incredibly rudimentary that I have to clarify that –– this mentality is subconsciously inherent in a lot of those who tack this label onto everyone).
Moreover, what most people don’t know is that a lot of black people cannot access any documents of their African ancestry because the logs kept during the times of slavery are completely inaccurate and unreliable. So even if we tried to peer into the origin of our black skin, we can only go so far until we reach the void that white supremacists created for us.
I know that my grandmother was born in the Dominican Republic. I know that my grandfather was born in Barbados –– I don’t know, however, where in Africa my ancestors are from, and I have absolutely no idea who they are. So why am I forced to check off, “African-American?" Why isn’t it acceptable for me to identify with what I know I am –– Black and Latina?
My forced identity derives from white people’s inability to accept people of color as simply, “American.” People of color always have to be labeled as “Asian-American,” “Latino-American,” or literally anything but “American.” White people want to remind us that we’re not them, but we can try to be.
This distance that white people create between white Americans and every other American is evident in: refusing to implement laws and advocate for equal opportunities among all Americans; voting for an incredibly racist president who is a blatant White Supremacist; and ignoring injustices within the so-called “Justice” System, and the continuously upheld economic disparities between races.
I mean, there’s a reason why no one stresses out over whether someone is “European-American” or “Australian-American.”
Notice how these labels only describe the continent) –– because all white people are treated the same. No matter where you claim your heritage from, your white skin will always unlock a plethora of opportunities and benign treatment throughout this country.
Of course, white people may face hardships in other categories (sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, mental health issues, etc.), but the fundamental label of being “White-American” does not immediately objectify them to a number of systematic and social restrictions. I am not here to discredit the struggles of white-Americans, but their skin color alone does NOT subject them to social or systematic oppression.
When we are labeled as “___-American,” the only aspect of ourselves that other people acknowledge is the one that announces our ethnicity.
The “American” half does not matter. Our country constantly prides itself on its ability to enable the “American Dream,” but this fantasy is incredibly hard to achieve as a person who faces an immense amount of systematic brick walls and foundations of oppression within the justice and legal system due to what society attributes to their skin color.
If you ask anyone of any race to describe an American, they’ll most likely describe a white person. Not the Dominican mother who was born in New Jersey and has lived here her whole life. Not the black woman who lost all traces of her heritage due to slavery yet has hustled to provide her children with a privileged life. We think of just “American,” not the “conditional Americans” –– us people of color are just conditional. Yeah, I’m American, but before I claim that identity, I have to clarify that I, indeed, am black –– no, that I am “African.”
If I am going to be federally labeled as “African-American,” then I demand access to my African heritage, as well as access to the all of the rights and opportunities that white Americans receive. Access to my African heritage means allowing me to wear braids, expose my natural hair, and freely celebrate and express my Black/African identities without labeling me as “unprofessional,” “too ethnic,” or “ghetto.”
If we are going to be federally labeled as “African-American,” then we should be able to express BOTH of these identities.
It makes no sense for people to force me to identify as “African-American” if I do not have full access to either of those identities.
A lot of white people have complained to me when I admitted to them that I feel misrepresented when I am labeled as “African-American.” Something I wish I pointed out to them is how offended they get when someone calls them, Irish instead of Italian, or French instead of Scottish. If white people get defensive when they’re attributed to the incorrect country, then I have every right to get defensive when I am attributed to the wrong CONTINENT, therefore stringing along incorrect assumptions of my identity and lifestyle.
A lot of people identify as “African-American,” “Asian-American,” or “Latino-American,” and are completely comfortable with that label, whether that identity is confirmed or not –– and they have every right to. I personally feel that my DIRECT Dominican and Bajan blood is constantly overridden by others asserting that I’m “African-American.”
So I, personally, prefer to be called black/latina, instead of African-American.
Although it may be easier and more convenient, we cannot assume that all black people identify as African, and we cannot assume that all Africans are black.
Unless I am going to receive the FULL benefits that come with being both “African” AND “American,” then I have every right to not only fight for the validation of my identity, but also for the correct labels to be attached to me. I will stop talking about race when America stops reminding me that I’m black.