I’ve witnessed my friends in education have a good laugh over a student calling Nelson Mandela “African American” to differentiate him from the white South Africans responsible for his oppression. Back when I used to be an SAT tutor, I, too, chuckled when I read essays calling Mandela and any number of other African historically significant figures by that term. Bonus guffaws were awarded when the student called someone who died before 1776 by that term.
It is incredibly funny when a student uses the term anachronistically or otherwise incorrectly, but these instances also indicate something important about the sorts of conversations about race that American students have — and more importantly don’t have — especially at the secondary and elementary school level.
I began (and quickly ended) my stint as a student in the public elementary school system in the early 1990’s. Along with environmental issues (which I already knew about thanks to Captain Planet), we were taught about diversity. It wasn’t like we could have avoided the conversation about obvious cultural and racial differences. Our classroom included not just my Desi Muslim self, but also students of German Jewish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Israeli, Persian, Armenian, Mexican, and WASP heritages, respectively — and those are just the ones I definitely remember as being present. Our parents were each invited to share food, songs, and other artifacts from our cultures of origin.
90’s-style diversity was very focused on the celebratory aspects of the American tossed salad, that unfortunate metaphor which has come to replace the melting pot. We all had cool things about our cultures. My mother even knew a version of Hickory Dickory Dock in Urdu.
We were encouraged to throw the aggressively multi-colored confetti and declare ourselves “different, yet the same”, a shallow parody of a Zen koan.
Part of this ahistorical celebration was an exclusive focus on language, as though teaching kids to say the right words would somehow eliminate any prejudice. In lieu of discussing issues, the issue became what was nice and not-nice to say. Granted, a lot of early education is focused on communication and language acquisition through the lens of social norms, so it makes sense on some level. At the same time, when divorced of context and devoid of an understanding of historical and contemporary realities, learning the right words feels like learning magical spells. Why we said “Asian American” instead of “Chinese” to refer to anyone from that part of the world wasn’t as important as knowing to say the former rather than the latter.
The same applied to the term “African American”. We were taught that “black” was like “Negro” or “colored person”: Not quite a slur, but entirely frowned upon. As a literal child who cared about being on the right side of things, I not only stopped saying black, I went home with corrections on my lips every time someone said what I called “the b-word” (I’d been sheltered from what most people would consider to be the actual “b-words”). To this day, my mother occasionally ribs me for the childish scoldings I gave her as a kindergartner and first-grader, the way I articulated each syllable of “Ahhf-rih-cun Uh-mer-ih-cun”.
I wasn’t alone.
The push to start using “African-American” instead of “black” is credited to the Reverend Jesse Jackson as a way to emphasize historical context in the conversation and was written about in the New York Times not long after I was born. Discomfort around the term “black” makes sense in the context of students taught to avoid certain words at all costs but not how, by whom, or why certain terms are preferred over others. People who aren’t black don’t know what other term to use for someone who is black, so you get statements like “Idris Elba would have been the first African-American James Bond.” They sound silly but come from what people believe is authoritative knowledge on what is or isn’t racist language.
The difference between contextualized and decontextualized conversations about race and language is thrown into sharp relief when you compare how white vs. black Americans view the terms. White Americans prefer African-American, to the detriment of those who prefer the alternative, while black Americans…. well, there’s a reason I am using the term “black Americans” instead of “African Americans”. Black Americans cannot separate the terms from their historical and political realities, while white Americans can and often do.
Mocking people who know only what they were taught and who are trying is less than helpful when it comes to anything, but especially on a matter as under-taught and as fraught as race. How I wished, when I was an SAT instructor, that I could have done more for my students than laugh at their unwitting, well-intended flubs. As a private educator, I couldn’t say anything even close to controversial or political, so I simply crossed out the “American” next to the “African” and hinted at the reasons why replacing “black” with “African American” doesn’t always work in every context. I can only hope my former students’ curiosity was sparked enough that they went on to do research of their own.
Main image by South Africa The Good News