African-American or Black? The debate of defining ourselves continues

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by Jessica Williams-Gibson

INDIANAPOLIS—On the upcoming 2010 Census, when choosing race Blacks will be able to identify themselves as Black, African-American…or Negro.

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Conservative commentator Glenn Beck states “African-American is a bogus, PC, made-up term. I mean, that’s not a race. Your ancestry is from Africa and now you live in America. Ok, so you were brought over—either your family was brought over through the slave trade or you were born here and your family emigrated here or whatever but that is not a race.”

Malcolm Drewery, statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau states the classification of Black and Negro has been on the census since 1950; in the year 2000, African-American was added.

Census researchers study racial identity terms being used by the public and three years before a census, members of Congress must approve questionnaire language.

There has been debate prior to and following the 2000 census on whether the term “Negro” should continue to appear on forms. To settle the matter, for the 2010 census an alternate questionnaire experiment is being conducted where randomly chosen individuals will see the term “Negro” and others who will not, but can write it in if they choose to.

Negro, Black, African-American—Dr. Ann Short Chirhart, associate professor of history at Indiana State University, says the “racial term” debate has been ongoing and full of meaning.

Once in America, most Black people referred to themselves as Africans for ethnic identity. As more Blacks were born on U.S. soil, they began to refer to themselves as Negro or colored, a category that included variations in skin color. Chirhart believes this term is still used by older Blacks and will dissolve in the near future.

As a symbol of Black pride and power, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement spawned the term “Black” in an effort to move past Jim Crow and segregation terms of identity.

African-American emerged as an attempt to combine a historical and cultural blend of African roots and American history/culture.

“Some people don’t like the term Black because it’s associated with skin color; others don’t like African-American because it assumes they came from Africa. A lot of them have more of a historical connection to the Caribbean, Cuba or Central or South America and refer to themselves as people of color,” said Chirhart.

“A lot of it has to do with preference from different populations and how one identifies themselves. There are reasons why people choose certain terms.”

There has also been recent debate on dropping the “African” and simply being American. However, opponents of the “All American” movement disagree with denying one’s history.

Dr. Monroe Little, African-American and African Diaspora Studies program director and associate professor of history at IUPUI, agrees with the latter belief because American society isn’t a “colorblind society.” He goes on to say deep-seeded racism and the idea that the term American is synonymous with White will not allow Blacks to fully integrate into the larger population.

As the Black community diversifies and evolves, the racial identity debate will continue and many believe there will never be one term to identify all Blacks. Both Chirhart and Little believe conversations and exploration of racial terms and personal experience will integrate the larger population into understanding Black identity—personal experience will become a part of the collective experience. Identity is not a product but a process.

“I’m of the opinion that there are more pressing issues. When Black folks called themselves Africans, there were important things that needed to be done, like the overthrowing of slavery, economic empowerment or political empowerment of African-Americans,” said Little. “That’s still the case regardless of what we call ourselves. The struggle continues. Let’s keep our eye on the prize and that’s freedom.”

(Reprinted from the Indianapolis Recorder)

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