Wikipedia Unsure Whether African-American Should Be A A, A-A, A-a

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 20 20:45:52 UTC 2008

Aw, BB, please!

Suppose that your mother had decided that her affiliation should be
with the Anglo-Normans, among whose descendants "Barrett" is also a
common surname. Now, suppose that, one day, someone happens to pass
your mother on the street. Would your mother's self-conceit matter to
that person or to anyone else other than your mother?

As coincidence would have it, "Gray" is the name of at least three
different towns in France, one of which is in Normandy. As a
consequence of this, "Gray" is likewise a surname common among people
of Anglo-Norman descent. One day, the idea comes to me that, in view
of the fact that the VAST majority of people who choose to refer to
themselves as so-called "hyphenated-Americans" do so on the mere basis
of their surnames. Instead of thinking of / referring to myself as
colored, black, Negro / negro, Afro-American, African-American,
niggra, nigger, negre, noir, negar, prieto, or whatever, I decide to
simplify matters and go with "Anglo-Norman," on the basis of my
surname alone.

One day, someone points out your mother to me as a
fellow-Anglo-Norman. So, one eve, not having nothing better to do, I
figger, WTF, I drops by yo mama crib an boots her to the haps that me
n her related, though, of course, somewhat distantly.

You can imagine the rest for yourself.

As for the need to create a socially- and linguistically-neutral term
that eliminates reference to skin-color, there is clearly no such need
nor is there any possibility that such a thing could be done.
"African-American" refers to skin-color just as obviously as do black,
brown, yellow, tan, colored, white. As should be totally obvious to
anyone, "African-American" is nothing more than a trivial calque on
Irish-, Russo-, Franco-, Canadian-, etc., etc., etc., American.

As long as it's possible to tell whether a person is of some degree of
sub-Saharan African descent on the basis of the most casual of
glances, there's no way to do anything more than to look ridiculous by
trying to find some word that makes no reference to "race,"
"ethnicity," "skin-tone," or whatever other word that anyone wants to

Let ten percent of the European-American population decide to refer to
itself as "African-American" and the term may then become "neutral."

If you haven't had to deal with it, you can never understand.

[WARNING!!! Anecdote ahead!]

In Saint Louis, I had a friend that I'll call "Geechee," since she is
one, in the East-Texas sense, being a blue-eyed, ivory-skinned,
dishwater blonde with a French surname (there's a town in Louisiana
with the the same name) - well, her hair is now grey, since we're the
same age. She was considered by all and sundry who knew her, including
herself, to be African-American.

However, when she went to college at Washington University, problems
arose. When she met people who didn't know her, i.e., anybody white,
they assumed that she, too, was white. Those whites who met met her
and liked her would take her to whites-only places with them. She
would then come back and tell other black people about it, thereby
sending them into paroxysms of shock. How were you able to get in and
get served?!!! Poor Geechee had no idea that, when she walked into a
"white" joint with a bunch of white girls, proprietors merely assumed
that she was also white and didn't give her a second glance. She,
OTOH, being fully aware that she was African-American, had been under
the impression that all these places that she had been going to were
integrated and that was why she was being allowed in. Having lived her
entire life as African-American, it had never occurred to her that
anyone could possibly see her in a different light. <har! har!>

Anyway, to make a long story short, she has completely disavowed her
European heritage and now claims that she looks un-African-American
because she's of African and Native-American descent and is now a
member of several black-Ind.. uh, African-American-Native-American
organizations. How she can get herself to believe that she has no
white ancestry when she looks into a mirror into eyes so blue that you
can see the sky through the back of her head I don't know.

FWIW, blue eyes, though far from common, are not especially surprising
among African-Americans. They correlate only with skin-tone. Not every
fair-complexioned black person has blue eyes, but all blue-eyed black
people have fair complexions, even though, in every other way - hair
type, nasal breadth <har! har!>, fullness of lips - the individual may
be of fully sub-Saharan appearance.


On Mon, Oct 20, 2008 at 1:41 PM, Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Wikipedia Unsure Whether African-American Should Be A A, A-A,
>              A-a
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Through linguistic classes, I came under the impression that Afro- and
> African-American came from the need to create a socially and
> linguistically neutral term that eliminates reference to skin color.
> With the strong ethnic and religious divisions in the United States,
> there is surely a need for everyone to own such a term of
> identification.
> In some cases, such terms may be truly descriptive such as in
> neighborhoods where immigration is recent (not the case Doug
> discusses). In cases where the ties are weak, they may be more
> symbolic, a source of pride or means of accessing group affiliation.
> My own mother is a case that has somewhat puzzled me. Her seventh or
> eighth grandparent immigrated from eastern France to Canada, a refugee
> from religious persecution, and there is no cultural identification
> with France (or the more recent Canada) in my family. In her forties
> and fifties, she gradually began identifying strongly with the French
> such as by taking language classes, adopting her grandmother's last
> name and then pronouncing it in a French style, and visiting the
> ancient family graveyard (now plowed under). I'm not sure if she uses
> the word French-American, but her behavior was certainly consistent
> with group affiliation.
> AFAIK it was a way for her to have and express pride in her cultural
> heritage. To us kids, it seemed strange to incorporate something so
> distant at such a strong level of identification, and also to single
> out the French connection when our other lines such as Dutch and
> German are just as strong. BB
> On Oct 20, 2008, at 9:55 AM, Wilson Gray wrote:
>> Doug Harris writes:
>> "... I am somewhat disturbed by the need of some people to identify
>> themselves as, say, Irish-American, or Polish-American, when neither
>> they
>> nor their parents came from Ireland, or Poland ..."
>> An excellent point, particularly in view of the fact that the average,
>> so-called "_African_-American" has no need to identify himself in any
>> way, given that the merest of glances is usually sufficient to
>> identify such a person.
>> -Wilson
>> On Sun, Oct 19, 2008 at 9:42 PM, Doug_Harris <cats22 at>
>> wrote:
>>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>> -----------------------
>>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>> Poster:       Doug_Harris <cats22 at STNY.RR.COM>
>>> Subject:      Wikipedia Unsure Whether African-American Should Be A
>>> A, A-A, A-a
>>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>>> In attempting to learn what the oft used but seldom explained term
>>> 'robocall' means, I checked Wikipedia. In the article re robocalls,
>>> my eye caught the term African-american. Thinking that odd, I Wiki'd
>>> African-american, and was pointed to the article headed African-
>>> American,
>>> with both A's upper-cased.
>>> Then I noticed something else curious: Throughout that article, there
>>> was apparently indiscriminate switching back and forth from the
>>> hyphenated
>>> to the unhyphenated version.
>>> But African-american, in the form, didn't appear in that article even
>>> once -- unless I missed it.
>>> Though it has nothing to do with me, and no one particularly cares
>>> how I
>>> feel about it, I've always found that term somewhat disturbing, in
>>> the
>>> same way I am somewhat disturbed by the need of some people to
>>> identify
>>> themselves as, say, Irish-American, or Polish-American, when
>>> neither they
>>> nor their parents came from Ireland, or Poland, or whatever.
>>> Colin Powell, in his endorsement of BO today, made a similar point,
>>> about
>>> how certain Americans are vilified because they have Arab-sounding
>>> names,
>>> or happen to be Moslem, or Sikh, or whatever.
>>> As Rodney King said (as quoted by Wikipedia): "Please, we can get
>>> along
>>> here."
>>> Without hyphens, preferably.
>>> dh
>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>> The American Dialect Society -
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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