In Her Words
It’s OK to Say Black
Black or African-American — what’s the right label?
As the white wife of a black man, I am often asked questions people are dying to ask but afraid to, for fear of offending others. The No. 1 question (after “is it really true what they say…?”) is “What are we supposed to say, “Black” or “African-American?” It’s a good question. There are so many conflicting messages out there that it’s hard for well-meaning people to know the preferred label. People often say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing. And while part of me wishes we didn’t have such a need to assign labels in the first place, they are a reality in our society.
So, the question remains: Should we say “Black” or “African-American”?
The complicated answer, of course, is that no single person can answer this question, or any question, for an entire group of people. Some people prefer to call themselves Black, while others prefer African-American. But that doesn’t help much, does it?
Here is my short answer: Every Black person I know calls himself (or herself) Black. Likewise, of all the Black people with whom I have personally discussed this issue, not one of them is offended by being called Black.
Very often people will say African-American as a default because it seems to be more politically correct. Most of the Black people I know have the exact opposite reaction to it, however. African-American feels forced, or like you’re trying too hard, or like you don’t know what to say (which is often the case). Additionally, many Blacks in the United States are not actually African-American, including Africans, Jamaicans, Cubans and Haitians, to name a few.
As my husband declared, James Brown didn’t say “Say it loud, I’m African-American and I’m proud!” He said, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!”
As a general rule, the term African-American is appropriate in a formal or professional setting, such as when giving a speech or in a job interview. In everyday conversation, though, it’s OK to say Black.
As for the first question, you didn’t really think I was going to tell you the answer, did you?