How Nelson Mandela Becomes “African American”

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

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How Nelson Mandela Becomes “African American”

7 thoughts on “How Nelson Mandela Becomes “African American”

  1. 1

    I see this all the time, especially with black celebrities; without even thinking or checking to see what country they’re actually from, earnest white folks describe them as “African American.” I’m on the advisory board of Black Vegans Rock, and a well-intentioned article by PETA (which I/we have absolutely no affiliation with) described our site as being by/for African Americans. Um, no, we have highlighted black vegans from all over the planet.

    For myself, I’ve always preferred black (or mixed when it’s important to point out that I have a black mother and a white father). For others, I say black unless otherwise requested.

  2. 2

    I think there’s another aspect: American exceptionalism. Everything and every one is only seen in their relation to the USA and complete countries are getting erased.

    1. 2.1

      Hm, I don’t know about that. It feels like a simple switch to me: “black” is a bad word, you have to say “African American” instead. Growing up, I was more than aware that America wasn’t the only or best country, yet I still made that flub because I wanted to be polite and correct.

      1. You don’t have to believe America to be the best to believe that the rest of the world is more or less meaningless.
        OTOH, have you ever heard that term used for a black person who isn’t “one of the good ones”? Like, say, Mugabe?

  3. 3

    I’ve been guilty of using this one, and realising halfway through the sentence that it’s wrong. Even when technically accurate, it’s still an absurd mouthful.

    I can’t speak for other users of the phrase, but I used to operate under the delusion that I “didn’t see skin color”. (Thank you to yourself and several of your co-bloggers in the FTB days for educating me out of that one.) Describing a person as “white” or “black” would have given lie to that, so I used “African-American” as a descriptor all too often. Also “Caucasian” when “white” would have been both simpler and more accurate.

    Incidentally, I don’t even live in the US, which may provide another data point for giliell on how pervasisve this is.

  4. 4

    I’m from NYC, where well, every group uses the worst words to describe each other, especially in age groups over 50..Tough times and all that I suppose. Your comment about correcting Mom, reminded me of my childhood and correcting my grandparents. Times rapidly change and it’s challenging for folks to know how to politely refer to one another, when sadly, we don’t mix much unless the school is hosting an ‘international pot luck’ etc…

    I appreciate your reflection on how the mature current you, would’ve liked to done better as the past you, but it is what it is. How we move forward is more important than where we’ve been…

    Keep it up. =)

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