The Problem With “African American”

By Mitchell Mullen

The Tower (Princeton, New Jersey)

Words that are accepted in society tend to bypass evaluations because they are assumed to be tolerable in nature.  However, when discussing racial injustices it’s necessary to question our word choice, as diction is the very basis of those discussions. In fact, less than 100 years ago, it was  “politically correct” to refer to black Americans in a variety of ways that most Americans would now deem profane. The evolution of racial discourse is abundant, given that the words we use to describe various minorities have been and should continue to be put into question. Despite its unquestioned acceptance into mainstream societal discourse, the term  “African American” nonetheless appears to function as a pejorative.

Use of the phrase “African American” diverts blackness in an attempt to whitewash slaveness and the total exclusion of black people from the market structure by the white power structure.  The African-American identity is a societal construct, used by the hierarchy to crudely incorporate the black body into the American collective. Unfortunately, the notion that black people are actually treated as equal members of the collective is misleading and serves to shroud the anti-blackness of society. Ian Yeboah of Miami University observes that “in order [to not] face isolation from mainstream America, [second-generation immigrants] identify as African Americans.” He elaborates, adding that “these children perceive themselves as African Americans in order to be part and parcel of mainstream America.” In this way, the concept of being African American categorizes blackness by merging diverse ethnic groups into one black body in an effort to integrate. Ignoring the harms inherent to categorization, endorsement of the pejorative has three distinct harms.

On one hand, categorization functions to broaden the scope of deep-rooted racial stigmas because the African-American identity embodies a history of American oppression and enslavement. When people identify as African American, their past is tied implicitly with slavery regardless of their personal history. Adoption of the American narrative for blackness leads to continued attachment of stigmas and stereotypes onto black people by the power structure. Shouldering these racial stigmas is a dangerous game, as the University of Wisconsin writes that they cause “vicious circles of cumulative causation,” or “self-sustaining processes in which the failure of [black people] to make progress justifies for whites the very prejudicial attitudes that, when reflected in social and political action, ensure that blacks will not advance.” In other words, continued conformity to the pejorative and its associated stigmas means the hierarchy is never made culpable for its own injustices.

Worse, continued engagement with the pejorative prevents true injustices from being unveiled. The notion that black people are equal to whites in the American collaborative is based in negligence, as Malcolm X identifies that, if anything, black people are “victims of America,” not a part of its collective successes. The pejorative thereby promotes equal opportunity through the perceived integrated collective, but maintains its poor habits in practice. Continued use of the term “African American” without realizing the realities of anti-blackness is problematic, as Claud Anderson explains that “the myth of equal opportunity … not only keeps blacks distracted from learning how to increase their share, but it keeps blacks believing that at least their children or their children’s children will have a fair chance at the brass ring.” The African-American identity renders society complacent to its own undoings because they feel that society is becoming more egalitarian when in reality power holders have no desire for equality. Perceptions about equal opportunity disincentivize discussion of and thereby implementation of concerted policy measures that would ensure a more egalitarian society as blacks are continuously distracted. Complacency is damaging to the black community at large, as it means structural and institutionalized racism can never be solved or alleviated. While antiestablishment efforts are pacified and the black body is homogenized, the unfortunate fact remains that we live in a country that incarcerates black people at a higher rate than in South Africa during apartheid—according to ProPublica, black people are at a 21 times greater risk of being shot dead than their white counterparts.

Continued endorsement of white-sanctioned language results in an ultimate maintenance of the white hierarchy. Stokely Carmichael of UC Berkeley writes that black people are engaged in a struggle for the right to make their own acts legitimate. The link to rhetoric is clear, as Carmichael furthers that “[blacks should not] wait for white people to sanction [their language] … [because] every time black people move in this country, they’re forced to defend their position before they move.” To abide by societally installed rhetoric means to keep the oppressed on the defensive, and thereby fail to question the acts of the oppressor.

Progress for change starts with the recognition that if society aims to call all races equal, it should act to promote this justice. It’s time to consider alternatives to “African-American.”

Photo Credit: Unsplash

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

Leave a Reply