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

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Mon Oct 20 22:33:31 UTC 2008

On Oct 20, 2008, at 1:45 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:

> Aw, BB, please!

LOL :) I don't think we really disagree at all, but are merely
discussing semantics as below.

> 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?

No. The point is that it's a wellspring of pride for herself, though
if she had continued to follow through by adopting more and more
French mannerisms, it certainly would have been obvious. For some
time, it was extremely obvious to us kids--pronouncing her name in a
way no one on the phone could understand, etc.

> 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.

Please understand that my mother's choice was indeed genealogically
determined, not name-based. It was the adoption of the name that was
determined by the roots, not vice-versa.

(I vaguely recall that episode of the Jeffersons where George finds
that he is the descendant of a great African king. At the end,
something deflates his claim, but he began wearing African styled
clothing with great pride. This is perhaps episode 3 "George's Family
Tree" briefly described at

> 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.

Knowing my mother, she would probably welcome you and have a long
discussion, one-sided or otherwise, with you on French ancestry and
culture although I have to claim ignorance on what booting means. (I,
on the other hand, am characteristically unfriendly to people who come
to my door without phoning first and would probably slam the door
shut, LOL.)

(Related to the Jeffersons is the episode of All in the Family "Archie
Goes to the Hospital" where Archie makes friends with his roommate
separated by a curtain. He finds that his neighbor's French ancestry
is interesting, but discovers at the end that he is black.

> 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.

The issue is that the word itself does not refer to skin color. Thus,
the word "black" used as a term for ethnicity specifically refers to
skin color (regardless of the fact that it is not related to the
colors of skin it refers to) whereas African-American is
geographically based. The move to a geographical term is powerful
because it emphasizes ethnicity rather than physical characteristics.

African-American also has the potential to include recent immigrants
such as Barack Obama and his father as well as the large influx of
immigrants from Africa these past few decades. (It can also
potentially handle people tracing their lineage to Africa but not
having the physical characteristics we associate with Africans such as
Boers, coloured people (a la South Africa) and perhaps light-colored
African Semitic peoples.)

Another related aspect is terms such as BE and AAVE, where the
initials remove us from the ethnic characteristics so we can discuss
white Americans as speaking BE/AAVE.

Why you don't see a need for a neutral term is a puzzle to me. That
seems like a great stride forward to me. Form will slowly give way to

Best regards BB

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

I agree with the thrust of your argument, which is that African-
American does have strong ties to skin color. That is unfortunate, but
it derives from the social construction of the United States, where
certain skin colors are considered primary in classification.

But I still think that the reason for developing the terms Afro- and
African-American is to try and get away from that.

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

I certainly cannot understand this on many levels, but it is a multi-
way road as all forms of discrimination are horrible however they
might differ. I continue to hold out hope for future improvements.
Changing social constructions is not easy, but much improvement has
been effected (my grandfather was a White Knight) and there is reason
for hope in the future.

Best regards BB

> [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.
> -Wilson
> 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

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