Black vs. African American: Do You Have a Preference?

February 13, 2012  |  

If and when anyone asks me what I am—in reference to my racial or ethnic background—I always answer black. I never made a conscious choice to choose the label of black over African American, I just say what feels natural and like an appropriate description considering I have no immediate ties to or specific knowledge of my African ancestry, which is as diverse country to country as the seven continents themselves.

But just because I personally choose to use the word black doesn’t mean I take issue with being referred to as an African American woman. If someone were to ask me if that’s what I was, I would answer yes and go on about my day, but it appears I may be in the minority with that outlook. The semantic debate over the interchangeability of the terms black and African American is rearing its head once again, and members of the community who want to be labeled as black are being quite vocal about that preference. recently did a write up on 38-year-old Gibre George, a man in Miami who started a Facebook page titled “Don’t Call Me African-American” to openly state his opinion. Turns out, he’s hardly alone. About 1,900 people have liked his page, and nearly the same number are talking about it. The about statement for the page states, “If you have to call me African then you have to call everyone African,” and in an interview with the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Gibre said the term African American “just doesn’t sit well with a younger generation of black people.”

“We respect our African heritage, but that term is not really us. We’re several generations down the line. If anyone were to ship us back to Africa, we’d be like fish out of water.”

“Africa was a long time ago. Are we always going to be tethered to Africa? Spiritually I’m American. When the war starts, I’m fighting for America.”

Gibre’s last point brings up another label of preference that some black/African Americans prefer, which is simply American. I’ve never been a fan of simply calling myself American. I get the point of erasing racial identity and enthusing solidarity as united citizens of the United States, but my ethnicity has always been more important to me than my nationality—maybe that’s why “black” tends to do it for me nine times out of 10.

I get the idea of being heavily removed from our African heritage, but being disconnected doesn’t mean you can just disassociate with what your ethnic makeup truly is. It’s unfortunate that due to our history in this country, we’re not able to call ourselves sixth generation Italian Americans or ninth generation German Americans like many white people do, but that doesn’t mean that some of us do not have that same type of lineage as African Americans though we’re not aware of the specifics.

The strong aversion to the term African American seems to do less with the term not being applicable and more with concern about how that label is intrinsically linked to our slave past and whether identifying as such makes us less American in others eyes.

Trending on MadameNoire

View Comments
Comment Disclaimer: Comments that contain profane or derogatory language, video links or exceed 200 words will require approval by a moderator before appearing in the comment section. XOXO-MN
  • Lizz

    Calling black people African American is wrong because not all black people are from Africa
    and it is racist. There are black people who live in different places all over
    the world and yes they were actually born there. Black people born in America
    are Americans. Calling black people who live in America African Americans is
    insulting because it makes them feel like they are not Americans. Same goes for
    calling a black man or woman African when they live in London. Black people who
    are born in different countries should not be called Africans, they should be
    called Italians, French, British, Australian, etc. Calling and lumping black
    men and women into the term African American and African is wrong because it
    isolates and oppresses them. Yes, black ancestors came from Africa- It is scientifically
    proven HUMANS originated from Africa.

  • Nikki

    ‘Black’ works just fine, yet I’m not offended if I’m referred to as an ‘African- American’. My only thing is my family is from the islands, so I consider myself an Afro- West Indian. There are ‘Black’ people living/born in the States, with family from origins apart from the US. Globally, Marcus Garvey would refer to OUR race as Pan-African, which is a term to keep us all united, no matter which of the 7 continents you’re living your life on today.

  • Chelcymartin

    I enjoyed this article except for statement you made saying that you can’t say that you’re 9th generation Italian American etc. Being “caucasian” (when I’m actually a mutt, like most “White” people- I know that my great grandmother was Native American, and there are roots from England, Ireland, and Germany, not to mention any roots that I’m not aware of) is a huge innacurate assuption. Every “white” person I know comes from a long line of inter-cultural mixing.

  • Regreybus

    Regarding a race label for people of color I agree with the word “colored”, because it includes all ethnic
    people, besides most people have more than one race in their blood line. I have three and I act/think like all my Cherokee/Italian/Black blood(s).

  • Jerjorju

    If  citizens of Africa move to America and become citizens here they are now African-Americans.
    Our African ancestors were moved (stolen) here to America and eventually their descendants became American citizens.  To me it is the same concept.  Both started in Africa and through a process became American.  Therefore, both are African-Americans.   “Black” was used originally as an derogatory term by whites (remember the term “darkies”?).  The word Negro was also a based in negativity.  In order to regain pride and dignity people of color took the word Black and owned it.  It was turned into a positive term with the mantra  “Say it loud.  I’m Black and I’m Proud”.  

    Because of the original history of the word “Black” I do feel a discomfort with using it.  I for one do not feel a disconnect with the Mother Land.  No matter where we moved or were moved to we will always have African roots.  To say you have no connection to Africa just because you haven’t set foot there is disowning your rightful heritage and letting the white man win.  He took everything from your ancestors.  Don’t let him take from you as well.  

    • thank God, there are some intelligent people here. I mean there are some who find poor excuses such as ” I have never set foot there, therefore I have no connection to Africa whatsoever”. It just shows how ignorant and lost they are.

      • Josh Gibson

        Black is more than just a color it is a state of mind. The sons and daughters of segregation knew that the civil rights movement in a sense was the black journey across the ocean to America. Read the opening lines of the speech nicknamed I have a dream and you will see that the Negro was one hundred years after emancipation an exile in his own home. Culturally we were a nation apart because of the law based discrimination that excluded us from citizenship.

        Once the movement ended we like other immigrant groups before had transition from membership in a group to status as individual Americans. I was born in 1957 and am not as black as my parents or grandparents were in the same way that second generation Italians, Jews or Irish people were not as Italian, Irish, or Jewish as their parents or grandparents. 

        This discussion represents the progress we have made. As much as i hate to say it at some future point our mindset will be completely American. We are going through a transition now others from earler ethnic generations would recognize.

        I prefer black and am proud to be black. I respectfully leave that term to people born in Africa. And I also believe the proper approach is to refer to them by their nation or even more appropriately their tribe. 

        • dumminique

          I would like to know from you where on the map “black land” is ? If you did not 
          come from Africa and have African roots, where did you come from ?

    • thank God, there are some intelligent people here. I mean there are some who find poor excuses such as ” I have never set foot there, therefore I have no connection to Africa whatsoever”. It just shows how ignorant and lost they are.

  • Cameron

    How can one be black and French? That tells me nothing. Are you of African descent and live in France? Because that’s what I get from that. One word refers to ethnicity (black) and the other refers to geography (France). Newsflash, you can be black AND French. 

    I think this is important because when you confuse geography and ethnicity, you leave minorities in every country identity-less. When Americans use the word “French” to mean “white”, they are doing a huge disservice to the French people of other ethnicities. Are black-French less French than white-French?No, of course not. But that’s the effect of treating geography and ethnicity like they’re one and the same.

    Now, back to America. Charlize Theron is an African American. She’s from Africa and is now an American, so who could tell her she’s not? However I’m black and I’m not African-American. Thing is, I’m not American. But when I’m in the US, I’m forced to accept this totally erroneous geo-political description as my ethnicity.The part about my African-ness is true, but the American part is wrong. And if African American were an appropriate term to describe an ethnic group, it would apply irrespective of geography. Black covers everyone from dark-skinned people in Madagscar to the aborigines in Australia to the blacks in Buenos Aires.

    Question for those still not convinced:   If I’m totally black, would you look at me weird if I said I’m Puerto Rican? That’s my nationality, but I’m being displaced because Americans have confused the land of my birth with the majority ethnicity of the people who live there. Do you see how that marginalises me? Americans make me feel less Puerto Rican. Once again, a black person is being robbed of a home (which is how everyone should be able to feel about their country of birth). And don’t tell me to go back to Africa because whites aren’t being sent back to the Caucasus Mountains.

    I also don’t like the term for a more subjective reason. I think it qualifies the American-ness of black Americans. Why don’t whites get asked on forms if they are Euro Americans? Because the implicit assumption is that America belongs to them. Every minority in America is subtly being linked with a foreign land, while whites get to simply be American. It matters on a psychological level  

  • Honi

    I call myself black. I have no problems with anyone who wants to call themselves anything else they please. I have some friends from Africa who really like to distance themselves from some black Americans. Yes, they are my friends, because those are their thoughts, it doesn’t get in the way of our friendships. One of them said he would NEVER want a black American woman to mother his child, but he wanted to date me. That was out of the question, and we remain friends. So, back to the point, I am black, not African American.

  • 1 love

    The fact that i am Afrikan Amerikan made me vizit Afrika js 2 see whr i originated 4rm… ITS BEAUTIFUL… i js dnt wana b called black… r u color blind… call me Amerikan cz thats who i am… ur not white… U R PINK… In Australia u can b sued 4 calling me black… DATS RACIST… nationality is acceptable… 1 love

  • Gunnermachine

    No mater where you come from as long as you are a black man you are an African-Bob Marley

    NUF SAID .

  • Poetic

    To abandoned one’s orignal hertiage, is a sign of an enslaved mind. When American was first discovered there were no “African” or “Black” people here, our ancestors were brought to this country against their own will. I recently took the vowel to classify myself as a African American because, for one Africa is were it all started for us. “If a black person” took a trip to Africa, he or she would see so many that look exactly like them. America is just the place we were born, as of Feb 12 I am ashamed to call myself an american, this country has done nothing for us especially people of color, we were slaves then, and many of us are still slaves now. No matter how hard we fight for freedom this world will never belong to us as a people, the signs are evident, they have killed so many of our great African American Hero’s our true home as a people I believe is in Heaven. Happy Black History Month…….R.I.P Martin, Harriet, Rosa, Macolm, Coretta, Whitney, Michael, Huey, W.E.B, Madame, Don, Etta, Ella, Lena, Dorothy, James, Smokie, etc….

  • Rah Truth

    The term “Black” basically describes anyone whose ancestors are majority African. (Yes, we know we all came from Africa somewhere down the line. I’m speaking of closer ancestry we tend to recognize.) the term “African-American” describes someone whose ancestors are majority African AND was BORN in the U.S. This term is just more specific. Many Black people living in the U.S. today were born in Europe (Black frenchman, for example), all of the Caribbean, etc… I don’t mind being called either one since I fit both definitions. But, if you aren’t sure of a Black person’s birthplace, just say “Black” so there’s no risk of insulting the person.

  • Mscocoabrwn

    I wonder why this is even a topic of conversation.

    • Jerjorju

      Because the government, media, educational institutions, medical researchers, etc. label us.  

    • dumminique

      This is what the white man has us doing….spending precious time debating over our hair, skin tone and whether we are Africans. People wise up and get real..if a cat made kittens in an oven would they be called bread ?

  • Pingback: It’s All in a Name on the BBC « I'm BVic()

  • Dove56

    Nope I don’t, I never understood why it had to be one or the other. I am both. Furthermore I never asked to be called any of these things.
    Its your identity, call yourself whatever you want. 

  • Jazzsingerar

    This is interesting to me because , before I moved to Jersey, I lived for a few years in an Ohio town where 98% white and liked to call people of color ‘colored’ ( I moved in Dec. 2011 , and the people calling us that were in their 20’s not 80’s). Also, I am Mixed which does not appear to be a problem in Jersey ( most people think I am a Latina- I do explain I’m Mixed) however, in Ohio there was a lot of splainin’ to do,lol. So pathetic. Anyway I found saying Mixed was never enough for them , and they would make almost a literal fight out of African-American- then I started saying Black and Italian. They disliked both , and I felt so empowered. It reminded me when I first heard the saying “Black Power”- it felt right, like it does when I say I’m Mixed if they need more – Black and Italian. It is so sad that in 2012 we still have to have this conversation at all. But I will never allow a white “hillbilly” as they call themselves try to feel superior to me questioning what do I know about Africa so why do I say African American. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know where my family is from in Africa – but I do know I’m half Black and Half Italian and I can say it with pride. Ironic, but my kids( in their 20’s) will correct someone in a  New York Minute – I’m Mixed, enough said , keep stepping. I need to be more like them :}…..

  • Frowspodl

    My (white) daughter’s best friend refers to herself as black, not African-American.

  • Ebonydiva82

    To be honest, I go back and forth between black and African-American. To be honest, I prefer neither term. I am culturally American and not in touch with my African side. To me it’s just a label which has little effect in how I live my life on a daily basis. The reason being that I have a young child and if I tell him I am black, he may be confused as black to him would be the color of the crayon. In his eyes, I am brown, not black. I’m wishy washy with it. Also, although it would be ideal for society to see us simply as American, it won’t fly when victimization or scapegoating of black/African-Americans are involved. I think that individuals should be able to identify with the label they feel most comfortable with. On a side note I’ve never heard Asian American’s being called “Yellow”, Hispanic Americans “Brown” or Native Americans “Red” on a daily basis in search of political correctness so why should African/Caribbean American’s be called “Black”?  

  • Mccray51751

    I want to be called by my damn name, not somebody’s label.  If I had to chose it would be Black.

  • This African American thing will always be a hassle. My mother is Malawian my father is American, both are black. But when I say my father is American most people give me the side eye and only a few are brave enough to say, “but you don’t look mixed”. In terms of nationality American shouldn’t automatically conjure up this blond haired blue eyed ideal. Identity, on the other hand is a personal decision and I like to call myself Black.
    Wasn’t there a white man who was born in Africa then naturalized who got into trouble for calling himself African-American?

  • NikkitaMichelle

    I have several African friends, who have earned citizenship and are truly now African Americans.  We have debates weekly  because they don’t like to include blacks when they’re speaking of African Americans.  They say things like we weren’t born there we don’t fully understand the struggles of African people.  They say we don’t have the values that they grew up with.  They don’t always speak too kindly of blacks.  And based on some of the arguments I’ve had with these so called friends I prefer to just be black.

  • MixedUpInVegas

    To Sandra:
    I am mixed. Africa is a distant part of myself. I was raised mostly in Europe, where some of my ancestry lies. But I was born, and will always be, an American first. 

    • That’s still a shame. 

  • FromUR2UB

    Well, black refers to racial origin.  African American refers to nationality.  Technically, any person who is a native of Africa, and then becomes a citizen of the United States, can be called an “African American”.  I like “black” and call myself black, but select African American on questionnaires. I see no reason to be offended either way.

    This is a good article. I remember when we weren’t called African Americans, and learning in second grade that our history in America began with slavery. As the white kids in class, of course, looked in the direction of the blacks as the teacher announced that we’d descended from slaves, I remember feeling a twinge of shame. I got over that, as I grew older and realized that this was not our shame, because we didn’t bring that on ourselves. But, before there was the term African American, I remember why it was necessary. We needed a constant reminder that we weren’t orphans of the world, who had no mother country or links to our past beyond slavery. So, for those who say they shouldn’t be called African Americans because they aren’t African and have never been there, then that seems to limit their heritage ONLY to oppression and bondage.

    • Lilacfreeze

      Well SAID!! Kudos from this “white” person (actually a mutt-Cherokee Indian, English, Irish, and German roots)

  • theshlaay

    Well I am a second generation Nigerian, born in Canada, and therefore I am African-Canadian. I embrace my African heritage fully and try to connect to the Black American experience as much as I can. I think it is unfortunate that American blacks would go out of their way to reject their African heritage, regardless of what they chose to be called. However, I cannot speak on what I have not experienced and may feel differently if I were a 5th generation American.

  • Denying my African heritage erases my identity. Black is only a color. A black American is an orphan who insists on staying lost. That is how I feel about this issue.

    It is amazing to me how thoroughly our sojourn through slavery has confused so many “Africans in America.” I like that term, coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. It doesn’t matter that we were brought here as slaves, our freedom sets us free to seek our true identity. However, so many of us demand to be voluntarily assimilated into something called “Black.” And so we sink into a debate among ourselves about what we should be called.

    It reminds me of the Biblical Exodus when many of the Israelites complained that life was better back in Egypt where they were enslaved, rather than endure the journey through the wilderness to the promised land.

    We have no promised land, but we have a foundational heritage — and it is in Africa. I learned living in southern Africa that our heritage extends through all of sub-Saharan African. We are all cousins from a common ethnic root. Separation from that heritage dooms us to wander as a lost people.

    • theshlaay

      “We have no promised land, but we have a foundational heritage — and it is in Africa. I learned living in southern Africa that our heritage extends through all of sub-Saharan African. We are all cousins from a common ethnic root. Separation from that heritage dooms us to wander as a lost people.” 
      Well said, couldn’t agree more.

  • JN31

    As long as I’m not being called out of my name or any derogatory term, it doesn’t matter. I usually just say “black” just because it’s easier and I don’t feel like giving a rundown of my entire background.

    I’m fine with either term but I do feel some people who are so adamant about not being called African American should check themselves to see why they feel so negatively about it. 

  • Pingback: Today’s Links | Nubian Stylez()

  • Mariah

    I’m Black yall.

    • Jerjorju

      I like that you capitalized “Black”.  I prefer African-American but when I use “Black” I always capitalize it out of respect for our race and its history.  I believe if we are going to use the word Black we should “Say it loud – I am Black and I am proud”.

  • Coca Black

    Interesting debate but I do get fed up of all the racial politics. I’m black, born in the UK to Caribbean (West Indian) parents. But saying that both my parents were also born in the UK. However, I regard myself as black and British. If people want to drill it down, then you could say I’m West Indian, if you want to drill it down further then I’m African, if you want to drill it down further then that..well, I’d have to stop!! Cos I’m not too sure which African country I’m actually from.

    So I’m happy to call myself black!! 🙂

  • MixedUpInVegas

    I feel no affinity to Africa and couldn’t be less interested in it.  The United States is my home and has been my family’s home for generations.  My interests lie in my native country.  I’m an American, period.

    • you feel no affinity to Africa; why?

      • I actually understand what Mixedupinvegas is saying.  And in fact just because the colour of your skin is black doesnt mean you have to relate feel affinity to Africa in the same way that white people living in other continents do not have to feel affinity to Europe.  

        How do you feel any connection with a country you have never been to and your family for 10 generations has never been to?  What exactly are you connected to when you dont have any knowledge of the people and the culture?

        People should have the right to identify themselves which ever way best suits them.

        • IAMWOMAN

          “How do you feel any connection with a country you have never been to and
          your family for 10 generations has never been to?  What exactly are you
          connected to when you dont have any knowledge of the people and the
          culture?”  Thank you, ATF for stating the obvious!!

          I call black folks “black” b/c, unless they were born in Africa, I don’t see them as technically African-American.  I’ve known true A-A’s and they are AWESOME people.  I have a black friend who identifies himself as black for that same reason….he was born here in America.

          • is it so hard to open a book and educate yourself about africa??

        • well, just educate yourself on Africa, that’s it. But I am sure that you don’t want to feel any connection to Africa because the only thing that you probably know about this continent is poverty, war and AIDS.

      • dumminique

        This is why ‘black’ people are lost. because we want to be lost. We can learn about Africa if we want but we do not want. We rather pander to the white man and his racist ideals. Do you know if you take a close look at Africans from the continent, especially West Africa where many of our ancestors came from and those all over the diaspora that there are more similarities then differences ? There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

        • You said exactly what was on my mind. They just don’t want to learn about Africa otherwise they wouldn’t make such ignorant and stupid statements about it.

  • J A SASSY aka salon22

    I  have black , white and who knows what else in me… thanks to white folks,, but i prefer black and im definetly proud to identify as black. we should worry more about folks as humans instead of dividing people in skin color groups..smdh!!

  • J A SASSY aka salon22

    Call me a human or a woman , and what about can we call whites caucasian or European americans?


    I dont want white people calling me isht.

    • Whiteandproudofit

      and you wonder why you’re discriminated against you idiot

  • Vic

    Black is a racial classification. AA is an ethnicity ( an arbitrary one at that). Maybe if we paid more attention to words and what they truly mean , we’d be out of this situation. 

    Either way , it’s white people who determine what racial classifications are and who is going to be classified. Read people!

    • Lilacfreeze

      White people determine classifications? I don’t think so. Apparently you, and anyone who has liked this statement are allowing White people to decide for them. Guess what? I’m white and I have never thought twice about deterimining SOMEONE ELSE’S CLASSIFICATIONS! Get over yourselves people! It’s 2012 and the only reason that it is still a problem is because yall let it continue to be a problem. You teach your kids that white people hold all the power and decide things, when in fact, there is a BLACK PRESIDENT in office at this very moment. All you are doing to your kids is hindering in their future lives by making them thing they are not as good as anyone else. THANK YOU FOR CONTINUING THE CYCLE!! How about teaching your kids that they are equals in society now (something your ancestors fought for very hard) and they can be anything they want to be. Maybe then, they wouldn’t resort to living the “thug life”, selling drugs and hustling people when they could use that wonderful brain of theirs to make something of themselves.

      • finisterre

        From one white person to another, you need to:
        1) Stop being a racist fool.
        2) Check your privilege. Not having to think about being white is a luxury.
        3) Shut up and listen for a change.
        Also, you might want to consider laying off the capslock. It tend to emphasize your general unpleasantness much more than it does your point, whatever that is.

    • Lizz

      You are a racist and I should report this comment as abuse

  • queenie

    My race is black but my ethnicity is African- American. Although all I know is America, I am proud of my African heritage. Until I discovered my exact African origins (Nigerian, Ghanian, etc.), I would like to be referred as an African-American.

    • Lizz

      Personally I feel it is racism, that white people are choosing to label black people- not all black people are from Africa and my uncle and cousins who are black feel that calling them and black people African American makes them feel like they are not Americans. There are black people who are from London and are called African when they should be called British. It is scientifically proven that Humans originated from Africa and white people who call black people African American and African is insulting and is oppression. But then again I am white and if you feel like it is not a problem to you then who I am to say that you shouldn’t want to be called that

  • For black Americans to title themselves that then you should title ‘white’ people European Americans. Considering once upon time the world was once one country and now due to some much mixing in homo sapiens having all of these titles is stupid. Just label yourself where you were born or what you want to be called. If your color is brown call yourself brown. This is 2012, stop living in the past.

  • Sigh!  Here we go again.  I’m old enough to have been referred to as “Colored, Negro, Black and now African American.  I prefer, “Lillie”.

  • Kimer33333iiiii3

    My friend just met a chocolate man on Blackwhite’meet.COMit’s where for men and women looking for interracial’ship for a fabulous lifestyle
    It’s a nice place for black white sing’les, to interact with each other…no bounds or extremes in front of true love.