Commentary: Yes, You Can Call Black Olympians "African-American"

Commentary: Yes, You Can Call Black Olympians "African-American"

Once again, someone is foolishly trying to argue that calling Black people African-American is wrong.

Published August 8, 2012

As many people in the Black community know, a lot of ridiculous discussions about racial labeling arise amongst the ranks of African-Americans from time to time. Former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, for instance, said he didn’t want to be known as an “African-American,” as he felt the term wasn’t as patriotic as, say, Black. “I don’t use African-American, because I’m American, I’m Black and I’m conservative,” Cain said in June of last year. “I don’t like people trying to label me. African-American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people.” Back then I called Cain’s comments ridiculous, noting, “We use the term ‘African’ not because of an allegiance to the continent of Africa, but because many of us — thanks to slavery — can’t trace our origins back to any specific nation.”


Soon after I wrote that, Cain’s campaign died, and I thought we might be able to get through this year without having to have another discussion about what to call Black people. I was wrong.


The Washington Post’s Tomi Obaro this week looks into a CNN iReports contributor from South Carolina, Byron Thomas, who says he has a problem with Black gymnast Gabby Douglas being identified as African-American:


Referring to Gabby Douglas’ historic win, Thomas insists, “She did not win that gold medal for Africa nor was she born in Africa. Africa has their athletes and none of our Team USA athletes are representing Africa or making history for Africa. Let African Athletes represent Africa.” He also mentions the fact that Michael Phelps was not “German-American” or “Irish-American” when he became the most decorated Olympian in history. He was simply American.


Obaro goes in on Thomas herself, noting that the young man appears to believe Africa is a country — “…when I hear the word African-American, all I can think of is two countries Africa and America,” he says at one point. But to be fair, Thomas’ main point is one that’s made — incorrectly — by a lot of people both Black and white.


Once again, because it obviously bears repeating, a person who calls themselves African-American is not expressing any allegiance to Africa. People who call Gabby Douglas African-American aren’t at all suggesting that she is a competitor for Africa, and to hint that they are is absurd. The term “African-American” simply arises from the fact that, unlike many white Americans, who can trace their lineage back to, say, Ireland or Italy, Blacks cannot and so we say “African-American.” It would certainly be nice for every Black American to be able to say, “My family originates from Kenya,” the way a white person can say, “My family originates from Germany,” but slavery took away that possibility for millions, and so now we say “African-American.”


It’s a very reasonable explanation and it’s time people get over it.



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(Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Written by Cord Jefferson


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