black vs african american

This may be the wrong network for this question, but here’s a try. In general, the terms “Black” and “African American” are considered non-derogatory among people in that group, with some preferring one and others the other and many people using them interchangeably. By contrast, many White young people are being taught that “African American” is the only acceptable term, and that “Black” is insulting. I am getting feedback from my students — few of whom are Black, some of whom have gone to integrated schools — that there are places where young AfAm/Black people take offense at the term Black, and other places where young AfAm/Black people laugh off or dislike African American and strongly prefer Black. So I’m pretty sure this is varying. My question is, does anybody know the parameters of how it is varying? What geographic areas or types of places go one way or the other? My hypothesis is that the only places where African American is preferred and Black is seen as derogatory is in White-dominated schools where the Black/AfAm kids are picking up what White kids are taught. But that could be wrong.

As an unrelated example, I’ve gotten from students the information that in Southern California (unlike the rest of the US), there are people (mostly Central Americans) who want to reserve the term Latino/a for Central Americans, and want to use the term Hispanic for Mexicans & Mexican-Americans/Chicano/as. (In the past Mexican Americans typically preferred the term Latino over the term Hispanic.) This debate seems to explain a peculiarity in California prison records, where non-Mexican Hispanics are coded as “Hispanic ethnicity unknown” in the variable that is supposed to be Hispanic: yes, no, not known.

I love this stuff on the shifting & evolving language of race, although I’m only tracking it informally through rumor. But if you know the answer (or some of it) to the Black vs AfAm question, or even have a relevant data point, I’d appreciate a response.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

14 thoughts on “black vs african american”

  1. I’m just guessing on the Black/AfAm usage that “African American” is more offensive in areas where there is a higher percentage of black immigrants that don’t share the African or American parts as much…islander, “African-Africansm,” black immigrants from France, England, Germany, etc.

    As far as Hispanic/Latino, I’ve never heard the Latino=Central American and Hispanic=Mexican distinction, but I live in Indiana, so what do I know? The debate, as I understand it, is that the various immigrant groups that compose the artificial group of “Hispanics/Latinos” all hate both terms for various historical improprieties and/or inaccuracies. But they mostly hate the terms because of the regional hatreds that mark most of Central America. If someone from the Mexican state of Chiapas is Hispanic, the someone from Guatemala is clearly Latino or nothing at all. Ditto Bolivia vs Venezuela, Nicaraguans vs El Salvadorans, etc.

    The only Hispanic/Latino group term that is also regional that I know of is “Chicano, which has evolved through generalization since the term was introduced.”It originally referred to Mexicans living in America (or Americans born to Mexican parents…in either case, an Americanized Mexican).

    Historically Napoleon is credited with creating the term “latin america” and so it would be strange if Mexicans thought they were exempt from the term “latino” since Mexico was Napoleon’s target. “Hispanic” politically is probably a bad term since it puts too much emphasis on the Spanish roots which the various populations in Mexico, Central America, and South America have all experienced in varying degrees and never without trauma.


  2. When I was walking through “el mercado” the Mexican markets in San Antonio, Texas, I was surprised to see a t-shirt that said “I’m not Latino/a (they’re from Rome), I’m not Hispanic (they’re from Spain), I’m Mexican!”


  3. 2005. “What’s in a Name?: Preference for ‘Black’ vs. ‘African-American’ among Americans of African Descent,” Public Opinion Quarterly 69: 249-438 (with Lee Sigelman and Jack Martin).


  4. Thanks, I found it; fyi the correct pages are 429-438. This article gives the correlates of the preference for AfAm (younger, urban, mixed 50-50 grammar school) but does not address the question of people who think “Black” is derogatory, which is the report I found surprising.


  5. My comment doesn’t relate directly to the black/African American issue, but since I live in the Southwest (less than an hour’s drive from the U.S./Mexico border), I’ve been exposed to several conversations about Hispanic identity and ethnic labels. As individuals, virtually no one describes themselves as “Hispanic” (although my university calls itself a “Hispanic-serving Institution”. Many “Hispanic” people around here (NM) actually refer to themselves as “Spanish”, if their ancestors were here hundreds of years ago (even if the individuals involved are mainly “Native American”, albeit originally from south of the border). Lots of people call the recent immigrants “Mexicanos”. Almost no one in NM uses the term “Chicano” although “Chicano” (and “Chicana”) are the preferred self-descriptive terms of many Mexican-American people that I grew up with in northern CA.

    One last little comment that is only tangentially related to the black/African-American issue: in general, in my experience, as a person who has had close friendships with fellow graduate students from Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia, and other places in Africa – African people do not identify themselves as having very much in common with African-Americans. I somehow thought that there would be an affinity between African students and African-Americans. That tends not to be the case and I don’t really understand why.


  6. “That tends not to be the case and I don’t really understand why.”

    Because of the historic and present place of black people U.S. society. Blacks in the U.S. have been, and still are, relatively disadvantaged, devalued, stigmatized, and discriminated against. See Mary Waters’ work on West Indian immigrants to the U.S.. The first generation uses a variety of techniques (accent, dress, etc.) to keep from being labeled and perceived as Af-Am. Their children tend to assimilate, resulting in downward mobility across generations.


  7. Re Africans, this is also my experience. Africans and the children of Africans tend to distance themselves from African Americans, which gets pretty darn confusing when you are trying to “name” people, and it will be interesting to see what happens to this as it unfolds. I did not go into it in my original post because of my other interest, which is/was specifically trying to see if anyone knew who/where among Black/AfAms people are viewing “Black” as a negative term, because none of the Black/AfAm people I know view it negatively, even if they themselves prefer AfAm. The only accounts I have of this are from White students who claim that their Black co-students in high school felt that way. (Whereas a lot of White kids have been taught that Black is derogatory and AfAm is the only correct term.)

    Re the complexities of Latino/Hispanic/Spanish etc, yeah. I know bits of it, and know enough to know that it really varies regionally and that what is true in one city is not true in another. The easy part is that Mexicans are never Chicanos, but some Mexican Americans are.


  8. I don’t want to deny that there may be prejudice of African/ Caribbean students against African Americans, but I find it a bit disturbing that people ASSUME that Africans SHOULD identify with African Americans. They often have different backgrounds, different culture etc, and in some ways may be more similar to “white” students or to other international students, except for the color of the skin. The fact that people in the U.S. classify everyone in terms of their skin color doesn’t mean that everyone else has to do the same.


  9. socfreak: I agree. It’s a total social construction to assume people ought to identify that way, and I hope I did not sound like I thought African immigrants ought to identify with American Blacks any more than German immigrants ought to, or American Whites, for that matter. But the term “African American” would logically apply to the children of African immigrants, so choosing language gets pretty awkward when you are trying to talk about the different groups.


  10. Here’s my take on things, after writing a book on black studies. I am not black myself, so please take that into account. For a while (1970+), people seemed to want recognition of being American, which led to a series of monikers such as “Black American,” Afro-American,” and “African-American.” There was also a sense that one should get away from defining oneself in terms of skin color. By the 1990s, a lot of folks viewed “black” as a word that could connote history and culture, rather than skin color. It’s also a word that’s easy to use and shares little in spelling with other racial slurs. On top of that, there are many uses of the word “black” that are viewed in a postive light, such as “black power” and “black pride.” So “black” has made a huge come back in the last 10-15 years.

    For these reasons, there is huge variation in terminology. Some folks prefer African American because it’s post-Civil Rights and doesn’t mention color, others (probably the elderly and the young is my guess)are comfortable with Black. For example, in my academic zone, it’s now cool to say both “black studies” and “African American studies.” There’s a prominent blog by professors called “” and nobody seems to take offense. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some regional variation, but it’s not obvious to me.

    My ultimate measure of word acceptability is what mainstream publishers will allow because they are obsessed with not offending people through word choice. When I published my book (From Black Power to Black Studies), I discussed terminology with my editor and we agreed that all these terms were acceptable and that it would even be a good thing to vary them, not only for readability, but also to acknowledge the range of experience in the black community.


  11. The whole black/AfAm thing is a bit confusing. When I was a kid in the South, I said black. When I was older and living in the Southwest, I said African-American. But when I moved back to the South, my professors generally said Black so that’s what I started using. And that’s what the black students seemed to expect from me.

    To throw another log on the fire, what about Indian vs. Native American. In the Southwest, a lot of times it’s tribal – someone is Navajo or Pueblo or whatever. I have a few friends who are are “Indian.” One of them (20s) uses Indian and Native American interchangeably. The other (in her 50s) literally told me “I’m a god-#### Indian.”


  12. To summarize, if you are trying to figure out what is “right,” from these comments, the point is that it is all in flux and different people prefer different terms. I teach this as part of the social construction of race, and argue that the terms have to be constantly in flux, because they are tied up with political struggle over boundaries and meaning. I tell students: “Names are important, but there is no way to get it right. It is not like you pass the quiz once and never have to think about it again.” As regards my original question, there are lots of arguments out there in Black/AfAm sources about which to prefer (I’m finding more pro-Black than pro-AfAm arguments in the blogs), but I’m still not finding Black/AfAm people asserting that “Black” is an insulting term. I’m guessing that’s a pretty small blip.


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