Black vs. Africian American

A customer contacted us after an employee took issue with the use of "African American" in diversity training literature. She argued that "black" would be the preferred term.

I did some research and found arguments for both. As someone who has no personal experience from which to draw, I see it as a studier of language and the debate and shift as part of a natural evolution in vernacular.

It seems to me that African American is currently the term of choice (after being somewhat "coined" by Jesse Jackson in 80s). But as tides constantly shift, we are moving toward a time soon when people will want a term that doesn't (1) separate them from other "Americans" and (2) doesn't tie them to a place of origin they don't identify with b/c of their skin color.

Have any of you ever encountered this debate in the workplace? Had an employee request that you use a specific term?


  • 10 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • I've never encountered this personally, largely because the Black/African American population in this area is so small. We currently have one black employee out of 125 and I've never asked him if he has a preference. Our optional affirmative action form that employees may fill out after they're hired, asking them to self-identify, uses Black/African American.

    I think the designation black makes more sense because it seems strange to me to tie someone to a place/country of origin simply because of their skin color. I am not called a Mixed European American because several generations ago my ancestors came here from Germany, Holland, and Great Britain, I am just plain white. It also seems divisive to me to call someone African American because in the end we're all Americans, regardless of the color of our skin.
  • I have had this very discussion with one of our "few" Black/African American employees not long ago. Her comments were much along the lines of Celeste. She knows she will not make it but hopes her children will live long enough that we are all simply called Americans with no other identifying distinctions. Personally if she has to be referred to as one or the other, she too prefers Black over African American. As she said, I guess if you go far enough back in my family tree I would probably have relatives that came from Africa but I have never heard of any of them. Her children list “other” on any school or employment EEOC document they have to complete because of the “mulligan stew” of ancestors in their family.
    All that being said, “you just ain’t going please every body all the time.”
    I recall a story of an American (white) that was visiting England and asked a black man on the street what it was like being an African American in England. The man responded in a very strong English accent, “Sir, I am neither African nor American. I am British!”
  • Until everyone is considered the same this issue wii continue. We must be one of the only countries that put a nationality before American as a designation. When I am asked I am AMERICAN. I am not an Italian American. I am an AMERICAN with Italian heritage. In my opinion if you live in America and are a citizen you are American. I blame these issues on people like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the government. They say they do not want any beariers, but they do all they can to keep those barriers up. We have a pretty good mix of black and white employees. The easiest thing I found over the years was to not refer to our black employees by anything but there name and not use nationality or class lingo when talking to them or around them. I have found no happy medium yet. No matter which term you use someone will be offended. If a term needs to be used to distinguish a class I have found it better to not have those discussions anyplace else but my office. My opinion.
  • It's easy to blow this stuff off, but it doesn't 'cost anything' to be sensitive to the preferences of other cultures. The problem with Black vs. African-American is that people who would fall into that category don't agree on one or the other. Two of my branches are predominantly black (the term I use, because I'm lazy and it's fewer syllables), and I'm not aware of any negativity there toward one term or the other. I did cause some raised eyebrows a few weeks ago when I referred to a "Latina" applicant, but none of those eyebrows were attached to anyone Hispanic. :)
  • I would and do use "black" when the context is less formal. For a formal context (Application for employment) I would use "African American".

    Obviously these terms shift over time. Like Frank said, it costs nothing to use the terminology that an ethnic group prefers (if there is consensus).

    Personally, I prefer to be addressed as an "Anglo-Saxon" because it sounds tough and is probably closest to my heritage. But mostly because it sounds tough.
  • One of my grandmother's used to say "colored." Growing up, I always thought that was terribly embarrassing because it sounded racist. But to her "colored" was meant in a respectful way because in her time (and where she grew up), that was the most respectful term to use. To me, it brought up images of "Colored Water Fountain" signs and the like.

    I wonder if we won't come to a time when younger generations hear "African-American" in the same way I used to hear "colored."

    On a purely Oregonian sidenote: Paul, the mascot for my alma mater South Salem High School is the Saxon. My dad used to think it was the funniest thing that we were the Fighting Saxons. I wonder if that mascot will ever be changed because of cultural sensitivity issues.
  • Paul would have rather attended a school where the mascot was the Fighting Saxophone.

    Come to think of it, so would I.
  • Actually, my high school mascot was also the Saxons. Its ironic now as 90 percent of the school is Hispanic.

    You got to love these high school and college mascots. They remind of us a simpler, less sensitive time.
  • Being in Alaska, a lot of our high school mascots that our sports teams competed against were pretty cool, things like different types of bears and wolves. Ours was (and still is) a [U]salmon[/U]. Granted, yes, there are a lot of salmon around here, and salmon fishing and processing have been big industries, but c' the grand scheme of toughness, there's no way you can put a fish up against things like bears and wolves (both of which EAT salmon)!
  • I am of a very mixed heritage( heinz 57 variety) and somwhere in the background is African. I do however have a problem with being anything other than American as a natraulized citizen, and from a country of origin other than Africa. My children born in this country use the handle of "other" as their Dad is olso Heinz 57 variety, from another country.
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