FYI: “Black” isn’t synonymous with “African American”

A couple nights ago I made an offhand comment on Twitter about the conflation of “Black” with “African American” – the two aren’t synonymous – in response to a tweet referring to Nelson Mandela, y’know, the XhosaSouth African Nelson Mandela, as “African American.” It touched off a long and really interesting conversation about race, ethnicity, and identity, which is Storified and shared below.

A conversation on blackness, ethnicity, nationality, and identity. Not in strict chronological order – somewhat rearranged so the conversation flows more logically.


  1. I’m only just old enough to remember when “Negro” (or, less frequently, “colored”) was the socially approved term – and when older black folk were scandalized by the revival of the term “black,” as for them it had highly negative connotations. (due to how it had been used by white people.)

    The term “African american” has driven me crazy for years – before Jesse Jackson made it de rigeur, it pretty much meant the same thing as Italian-American (etc.). In other words, it was a good term for Africans who had emigrated (recently) to the US. And then that got flipped, seemingly overnight.

    Language is such a tricky thing – as is the attempt to pigeonhole people based on assumed ethnic origin and skin color. (imo; feel free to shoot me down in flames if you want to, as I know that’s not a popular sentiment in the US, and I’m by no means against the use of “black”!)

  2. I kind of publicly don’t identify as anything. I’m black, most certainly, but if someone wants to find a politically safe term for people who look like me, I’m not here to help them out. It’s a problem of the content of the statement, not the language used.

    To answer the question though, I don’t identify anyone as AA (anywhere). I identify people with African identities by the country they identify with. In black company I’ll refer to myself and my friends using all sorts of silly terminology (black, negro, colored people, etc.). When talking about politics I will usually use black, and that’s the term I’d rather see used in that context.

    Honestly though, I don’t really like the black/white terminology. I feel like “white” people chose to call themselves white because they identified themselves with purity, moral and otherwise. They then put us in this position of the, counter-white, “black” people. As far as skin color is concerned, how are white people more white that Asian folks? Anyway, I don’t really have any evidence to support this claim, although history speaks for itself.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  3. Yeah, my dad is Haitian and my mom is African-American. “Black-American” is the only identity marker that seems to appropriately honor both of my parents and their individual heritage

  4. I am a Black woman but more importantly I am a human being.