OPINION: Don’t call me African American

(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

As the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, I don’t identify as African American. I am Jamaican American: I celebrate Jamaican culture, I eat Jamaican food and listen to reggae music.

In addition to my family, there is a wealth of diversity of Black people in America. There is a growing number of Africans — people who practice African cultures — making homes in this country as well as descendants of enslaved people brought to America on a ship hundreds of years ago. Each community has its own culture and unique history. Some people identify as African, some identify as American, some feel somewhere in between and some don’t identify as either. Are we all to be called African American? African American is an inaccurate generalization, and it’s time to find a replacement.

As a younger child, I was confused about my racial status in our society. Of course, the problem wasn’t framed in an academic framework in my elementary school mind, but the feeling of confusion, nonetheless, was inescapable. I trust every one of you has filled in a bubble or checked a mark at least once in your life indicating what race you identify with. Some of you never think twice about what you fill out. For others, like myself, the experience is confusing and invalidating. What bubble do you fill in when nothing applies to you? 

I don’t remember my parents ever telling me their racial affinities or my own, and I’d bet you don’t either. Rather, we learn these things through socialization within our families; our parents don’t have to break the news to us. As such, I grew up with the understanding that my mom is Jamaican and my dad is white, making me partially Jamaican and partially white. However, Jamaican was never listed in the racial identity options on personal forms. I grew up filling in one bubble and checking one mark: White. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to also fill in African American. 

American society uses African American as a synonym for Black. As I got older and was more and more exposed to topics of race, I relearned racial categories in the way that America commonly defines them. I realized that every Black person in this country was called “African American” — even those not from Africa. I even started referring to my Mom as being African American and myself as being partially African American. I was socialized to think this term respectful.

In academic settings, political arenas and in everyday American vernacular, the term African American is largely accepted as the most politically correct way of referring to Black people in this country. Zeeshan Aleem’s article, “Something Disturbing Happens When People Say ‘Black’ Instead of ‘African American,’” responds to a study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which found that white people perceive the labels “African American” and “Black” differently. The study found that the term “Black” elicits more negative associations and lower perception of ability across the board when compared with “African American.’” But white people feeling more comfortable with saying and hearing “African American” should not be a reason to sustain this term which invalidates the ethnically diverse Black population in America. 

In my third wave of racial self-actualization, I have developed a strong distaste for this term. Don’t call me African American. This term wrongfully identifies me: I’m not African. I do, however, see the value of a term that encapsulates the three separate groups that I mentioned earlier in this article — Black immigrants from countries other than Africa, Black African immigrants, and Black people who have roots in this country — while not erasing their individuality. 

In America, our race is a strong indicator of our social status. We all know enough about implicit bias and institutions of racism for me to have to explain this. Therefore, if you look Black, you are treated the same way, no matter whether your mom immigrated here from Jamaica, you’re a first generation immigrant from Nigeria or your family has lived in America since the 1800s. Despite our differences we share something in common: the experience of being Black in America. So, call me Black — because I am not African American. 

Annika White PZ ’25 is from Southport, Connecticut. She enjoys hiking, journaling and making playlists on Spotify.

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