June 26, 2008 Author: By Raymond Arroyo
One of the goals of this series is to clarify and provide a historical context regarding diversity-related terminology commonly used in American culture today. By being clearer about using the "right words," this series aims to encourage employees to have candid conversations with one another, regardless of their differences, to promote an environment of openness and trust.
Any discussions about the terms used to describe African Americans as a group must begin by understanding the historical context within the United States in which these terms were used. It is a history that encompasses more than 300 years, when Blacks were brought to the United States against their will. During the subsequent three centuries, many terms were used to describe African Americans as a group in the United States.
During the 1950s and 1960s, common terms "negro" and "colored" were used, often disparagingly. Today, these two terms are unacceptable and are almost never heard, with the exception of old books and movies.
Many of the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) and silent generation (born before 1946) may still remember the posting of signs that read "Whites Only" and "Colored Only," used to segregate one group from another. Thus, it is not surprising that terms like "negro" and "Colored" can still carry a negative emotional connotation for many African Americans (and other Americans) living during the era of segregation.
The emergence of the current terms "Black" and "African American" came about as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s through the 1980s, when Blacks had a desire to formulate group reference terms that they could embrace. The wide popular acceptance of both terms shows the value of that approach.
Contemporarily, the most common and generally accepted terms are "African American" and "Black," even for the growing number of biracial individuals who have only one African-American parent (consider Barack Obama, Halle Berry or Mariah Carey, for example).
Another important point is that members of the African Diaspora--the exodus of large numbers of people from Africa to places around the globe--who reside in the United States have originated from many parts of the world. Using one term to describe an entire group can be tricky and is sometimes met with disagreement. Terms such as Caribbean American, Haitian American or Jamaican American are viewed as more descriptive names by certain segments of the population. Finally, there are also Blacks who are not American citizens, so the term African American may not be the appropriate term for them.
Bottom line: People should be comfortable using either "African American" or "Black" in their conversations and in writing, if race is being discussed or has any relevance to the conversation. In making a formal reference, the term "African American" is more commonly used. In informal references, either "Black" or "African American" is appropriate, and both are generally accepted by most people.