Black Lives Matter protests have opened up conversations about the history of privilege, racism, and the lived experiences and identities of black people in America. Now, the distinction between "black" and "African American" has become a prominent conversation on social media.
Many people often default to "African American" out of a desire for either political correctness or politeness. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but that isn't always accurate, and it's important to understand the nuance when discussing race both in America and on a global scale.
"There are black people in every continent who are all over the world," explained Professor Celeste Watkins-Hayes, an African American studies professor at Northwestern University. "African American is nation-specific. We are typically talking about black people who are born in the United States."
What that means is, for a long time in our country's history, black people were most likely direct descendants of enslaved Africans. Watkins-Hayes described the adoption of the term African American as a "very deliberate move on the part of black communities to signify our American-ness, but also signify this African heritage."
Over time, immigration to the United States increased, and people who identify as black in America were also likely to be first and second-generation immigrants without a direct connection to the history of slavery in this country.
"So, if we think about what's happened post-1960s, what you've seen is rising immigration among black people who were not born in the United States. People who are coming from Africa, from the Caribbean, from Europe, who identify as black but don't identify as African American."
Darien LaBeach, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy at the digital marketing agency Huge Inc., was born in Jamaica and raised in the United States.
"I am black, and within that, I am a Jamaican-born, African American man, but I call myself and identify as black," he explained."I have had to take on different identities at different periods of my life. But my blackness is the overarching umbrella of those different flavors of my identity."
LaBeach's experience is just one example of the complexities of black identities, especially in the United States. Some people originally from other countries who live in the U.S. accept African American because of its cultural and historical roots in the black experience that is specific to this country. "African American technically isn't even what I am," he said. "I'm a Jamaican-born black person but I have taken on this label of African American because of where I live."
These layers of racial identity can be extremely personal and nuanced. There are some Americans who identify as both, and some who prefer black over African American because they can't actually trace their lineage.
"Part of what was stolen, when we think about slavery, when we think about colonization, was that lineage," said Watkins-Hayes. "[They are saying] 'I don't even feel comfortable claiming African, because I don't know the story of where my people have come from.'"
"Black" is often a better default that recognizes and celebrates the race, culture, and lived experiences of people all over the world. "The move that you see now towards black is really to recognize the global nature of blackness," Watkins-Hayes said. "So, I think that that is the more universal term."
The recognition of a larger community of black people is also part of the rationale given for capitalizing the word. "It's recognizing the cultural and historical and social significance of black as a category, such that is deserves capitalization," Watkins-Hayes explained.
"We are all connected," LaBeach said of what the term black means for him. "Our experiences are different, but we are still linked."
But Watkins-Hayes adds that if someone wants to know for sure how a black person identifies, it's best to simply ask what their preference is. "It's an opportunity for conversation."
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