From the archives of avoidance

In a One Big Happy from 11/18, Ruthie and Joe pester their dad for using the word blackmail:

The kids understand the black of blackmail to be a reference to (in brief) Americans descended from enslaved people of sub-Saharan Africa, and they’ve been taught at school that the only proper, correct, etc. term for referring to such people is African American.

There was a time when the reclaimed slur black (or its orthographic variant Black) was advanced as the only proper, correct, etc. — and prideful — term, replacing Negro and colored, which were seen as demeaning terms, mere substitutes for the hateful slur nigger. In that context, many people objected to uses of black in expressions that were, or might be seen as, negative in tone — like blackmail (say extort or extortion instead) or blackball (say reject or expel instead).

These are two quite dfferent sorts of avoidance. In the second, black is elevated to a term with strong positive associations, and so is to be avoided in negative contexts. In the first, black is viewed as merely the latest substitute for nigger, is contaminated by this association, and so is to be avoided as a racial term.

Starting in the late 1980s, originally in academic circles, Afro-American, African-American, and African American were advanced as more accurate terms for Americans descended from enslaved people of sub-Saharan Africa (ADEPSAs), on rough analogy with Irish-American / Irish American, Italian-American / Italian American etc. (Here I have to note, once again, that Labels Are Not Definitions; no mere label can express the complexity of most of the categorizations we use in ordinary life.)

In any case, there are now people, including ADEPSAs, who object to black / Black and people who object to African American (on various grounds, starting with its ponderous length). And of course people who use both, according to context. (In talking about language varieties, especially in academic contexts, African American Vernacular English — AAVE, pronounced /æv/ — has considerable currency as an alternative to Black Street Speech or Ebonics or other alternatives.)

But recommending American American as a global replacement for black in all of its occurrences would just be silly (African American Friday, anyone?). As it is in the OBH cartoon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: