This is a link to an article that I find interesting, because it demonstrates how much trouble we have discussing race in America. Which is also interesting, because we seem to be throwing around the word “racist” quite a bit, making me want to quote one of my early mentors, Inigo Montoya:
From early on, I have been of the opinion – which, admittedly, is that of a privileged white nerd, so arguably of very little value – that the term “African-American” is actually a subtle way of side-stepping any discussion of race. It’s an uncomfortable subject, so we don’t like to face it head-on. For that reason alone, I believe continued use of the term actually slows our progression to a truly color-blind society.
Granted, I am a scientist first, so the fact that it is completely inaccurate has grated on me from the get-go. It is neither a person’s African heritage nor American citizenship that is the point of discussion. Therefore, referring to someone as African-American underscores an effort to not do exactly what you are in fact trying to do: describe the color of someone’s skin.
So, I admit to harboring a personal delight in situations that force the issue. Like when Lewis Hamilton stood on the top step of the podium of the inaugural Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas in 2012. And then again in 2014. And ’15. And ’16 … that event has just been a regular source of amusement for me.
Because Lewis is black. And I get to say black here, because he is British, not American, so that throws a wrench in the works. To the Brits, skin color is more of a description, like blond, or tall. And once everyone knows what he looks like – and I assure you, everyone in Britain knows what Lewis Hamilton looks like – he just becomes Lewis. And then we can all get on being irritated at how good he is at driving an F1 car.
Every time we choose to use the term African-American, we bring attention to the fact that we have an ongoing issue with skin color, and it’s one that we don’t want to talk about.
The linked article discusses Samuel Jackson’s criticism of Hollywood casting black British actors in films that deal with race in America. A British man, he argues, will not have the same perspective on the subject as black American actors. True, except that at the end of the day it is acting, and by definition, the only thing that matters is what comes out in the movie. Which is pretty much why the guy in question got cast in the part.
What I find entertaining (I did admit straight away to enjoying this sort of thing…) is the necessity to intermingle the terms black and African-American in the text. Since the discussion includes British actors, the “proper” term in America today – especially in an essay written about race relations – simply doesn’t work. And I think that awkwardness helps demonstrate an extremely important yet subtle point: talking about race is good, and helps move us along, by demonstrating the ridiculousness of basing the value of another person on the pigmentation level of their skin. But using a term like African-American validates the idea that skin color maters, and slows the pace of the very change we are all trying desperately to encourage. (Well, all except the racists).
The term African-American brings with it an underlying supposition that the described person has a past history that must be considered when making any evaluation of them or their actions. And the reluctance to use the word “black” serves to perpetuate a negative association. We would make much more progress if we tried to find ways to accurately describe the skin tone of people like director Jordan Peele, who I guess isn’t really all that black, though his father is said to be black, and his mother is supposed to be white, though I am assuming she is not albino so she must be kinda tan, and that would make him sorta brownish-tannish. And then he went and married Chelsea Peretti, and that just makes it all a mess because she is kinda lightish-tannish and has that reddish hair. And I just can’t figure out how to accurately describe all of this.
Which is exactly my point.