black (briefly)

I haven't got a lot of time tonight to talk about this, but I'm very interested in discussions I've seen regarding Barack Obama's racial identity--particularly because the meanings of social category names is a major (though at the moment suspended) research interest of mine. On the Obama issue see, for example, this article and this one, both from The first one claims that Obama is not really black in American terms, since he is not decended from American slaves.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Black History Month (in October, as opposed to February in the US), at least in my English town, is focused on "the history of Asian, African and African Caribbean peoples." Plainly, the use of black varies, at least around the edges, in the two countries. As in AmE, the primary BrE sense of black is 'person of sub-Saharan ancestry',* but AmE's main second sense tends to be restrictive (i.e. 'descendants of American slaves'), while BrE allows more inclusive interpretations.

But that's all I can afford (time-wise) to say at the moment, so I'll leave it at that and will promise more on black after one of my students finishes the research for his BA dissertation (AmE thesis) on the meaning of black in the UK today.

*And no, I'm not counting among 'persons of sub-Saharan ancestry' the Afrikaners or other people whose ancestors (somewhere between Lucy and grandma) are European. And yes, I am aware that most 'black' people in America have some European ancestry (the one-drop rule, and all that). As I said, I need to be brief!


  1. As an American, I should say that I've never, ever, ever heard of the secondary sense of black as restricted to the descendants of American slaves. It makes terribly little sense to me, as, to my mind, there's no descriptor more obviously predicated on appearance to the exclusion of anything else.

    Sometimes, of course, one finds oneself saying 'African-American' to refer to a black person who's not actually from America, so place of origin and ancestry comes into play there—but black? That's new to me.

  2. I've never thought of "black" referring specifically to the descendents of slaves either. Granted, when I think of a black person living in America, I tend to assume they are descended from slaves unless they have an obvious African accent, but I would definately call the people of sub-Sahara Africa "black" as well.

  3. As a Euro-American with an African-American semi-son-in-law, I polled the family. We all agree, contra Z.D. Smith and Jack, that using black for people born in Africa is peculiar; we would call them Africans, but not black and definitely not African-American, even if they have become American citizens. (Afrikaners and North Africans are obviously out of the picture.)

    For example, my friend Y. is an American citizen born in Nigeria, and I would never think of her as black, despite her skin shade; her children, however, are black and African-American by reason not only of their native birth in the U.S., but by reason of their paternal origin.

    In addition, black excludes people of Hispanic language or culture in general, no matter how dark-skinned. It does, however, include people of African descent born in Canada or the Caribbean (but African-American does not).

    Fundamentally, black and African-American reflect heritage only indirectly; primarily, they reflect (sub)culture, like the hyphenated names for other kinds of Americans.

  4. Keep in mind here that the article claiming that Barack Obama is not 'black' is by a black American (desdendant of slaves).

    There is a general rule (or at least I've theori{s/z}ed that there is, based on work in Social Identity Theory in social psychology--this is what my work on social category labels is meant to test) that people in a group have a more restrictive sense of the name for their group than others do. That is, we try to make our in-group exclusive, and make the out-group (others) larger. Hence the one-drop rule--whites maximi{s/z}ing who's considered 'black', in order to restrict who's considered 'white'.

    I wrote another article, published in Dictionaries in 1991 about the treatment of racial labels (specifically for 'black' and 'white' categories) in AmE dictionaries, and for the most part they don't contain the 'descendant of slaves' sense. But, if you look for it in AmE discourse, you can find it. In this case, black is an ethnic term, rather than a racial term--so that immigrants from Africa may be described as black in racial terms, but African (and not in ethnic terms. The fact that an ethnic term, African American has replaced black many contexts is further evidence that it wasn't just a racial term to start with.

    And we shouldn't take the description of that sense (descendant of American slaves) too seriously--no one's checking what your grandmother's grandmother's grandmother's grandmother (etc.) was up to all those years back. It's a way of expressing a certain African American experience/culture that is not shared by more recent immigrants. Linguist John Baugh, in describing the speakers of African-American Vernacular English uses the term American Slave Descendants and similar terms are used by others, since African American is rather ambiguous.

  5. I would say that the use of black in AmE to mean "descended from slaves" is definitely a cutting edge interpretation of the word. The far more common usage is to mean "a person whose ancestors are mostly or entirely African". Black can describe people from any country. African-American is the term used to describe the unique cultural experiences of blacks who are raised in America.

    Obama is not black in either sense though, so discussing which term applies to him is moot. He is of mixed race.

    The term where I think there really is a difference between AmE and BrE is "Asian". In AmE, this almost exclusively refers to people whose ancestry is from the far east. We don't think of Indians, Pakistanis, Turks, Israelis, Iraqis, etc. as Asian; and it's always a bit jarring when I hear BrE speakers use the term that way.

  6. If you click on the highlighted Asian in the post, you'll be taken to my post on BrE versus AmE interpretations of Asian.

  7. By the way, it'd be helpful in this discussion if people made clear whether their claims about the use of racial/ethnic words comes from an in-group or out-group perspective, as that's really relevant here. The words absolutely are used in different ways in different communities, as is (much of the) the point of the discussion on (In general, it is always helpful when people say what country they're from when responding on this site--or else one doesn't know what to make of "well I say..." statements.)

    For the record, I'm coming at it as a white American, but my research is based on the use of the terms in the mainstream and African-American media, as well as other studies on the use of terminology for American descendants of African slaves by John Baugh and Geneva Smitherman (in particular). And the mainstream media do use these terms in different ways from the black/African-American media.

  8. This is beginning come across as a contentious linguistic issue - for a couple of reasons. One is that in England, some people refer to themselves as Black, but this self reference extends to people who were not only not descendants of slaves, but who are descended from people in places like India and Australasia. A couple of decades back, Black referred to what is now called Black and Asian. The phrasing may have changed, but use of the term is credible from their perspective, and for an American to deny them that identity would be contentious.

    It gets even more contentious when one finds that Black has also been used with reference to the Irish (and perhaps other Caucasians), not in reference to skin colour, obviously, but simply as a means of denigration.

    One last thing. Going back through the etymology of black should take one to bleach, and perhaps bleak. (Looking at the history of place names helps in this regard.) There should be a reference to the Black Knight, and an explanation that black is a corruption of bleach, which at one time meant shiny, the way polished metal shines in the sun, reflecting the light intensely.

    With just a little imagination we can get from black, to bleach, to white, all in one word. So who's black now?

  9. Since Lynneguist asked - I'm a white American who grew up in the midwest east of the Mississippi. I grew up in neighborhoods with mostly white people. So I guess I'm definately out-group.

    At any rate, I would use African if I were wishing to emphasize the person's origins, but would otherwise call a dark-skinned person of African descent "black."

  10. So after all these years, "Black" now isn't a racial epithet but a cultural one.

  11. David-as-usual, you seem to be saying that an American here is denying BrE speakers the use of their own senses of black, which I don't think anyone has here. I certainly haven't. I'm saying that there are several senses of the word, and that the descended-of-slaves one is a particularly AmE one. Others are talking about their own experience of the word black--which, if they're American, are probably not going to include Asian. The thing about people's perceptions of how they use words, though, is that they're often unreliable. That was the problem with the dictionaries I studied (in the 1991 and 1998 papers for AmE and South African English, respectively). The dictionary editors had relied on their own intuitions of the words' meanings and hadn't sorted out all of the senses out there. Funnily (seeing as lexicography is traditionally a pretty white profession), I found that the definitions of white were particularly bad.

    The other thing to note here is that I'm not saying that black is not used to refer to people by skin colo(u)r--or, more particularly, African ancestry--but that there are other senses of the word as well (and it's these that tend to differ in AmE/BrE. In semantic terms, the word is polysemous (like most words we discuss here).

    Dearieme, hasn't race always been a cultural thing? (The notion of 'race' is fairly unsupportable on scientific grounds. Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man is a good read.)

  12. Lynne, I'm not saying that 'an American here is denying BrE speakers the use of their own senses of black'. Far from it.

    I was responding to the intimation in the pieces you referred to, where someone seemed to be saying that Americans who define themselves as Black have the sole prerogative of deciding who the term applies to.

    It seems to me that anyone who does say that would find themselves in unsympathetic circumstances here, and probably in other countries as well. Nothing to do with you.

    What I'm looking for, overall, is evidence that people everywhere understand the situatedness of their own experience. So when you refer to the particularity of blackness in America, or that there are other senses of the word, you're doing just that.

    I agree with you in relation to dearime's comment. Race is cultural, and the epithets are an attempt to obscure the evidence in the language of biology.

    Lastly, for the record, I'm 'white' of mixed northern European and eastern Mediterranean heritage, but live and work in a community that's nearly 50% 'black' per my earlier description.

  13. OK, David--thanks for clarifying. Sorry I misunderstood what you were referring to.

    One thing I've decided out of all this is that I should clarify some background assumptions here about meaning, which I'll do in its own post. I have recently provided links on the site to dictionaries of linguistic terminology, the IPA and a grammar of English, but I think semantics could use its own little guide. (Well, I would. I'm a semanticist.)

  14. What word, if any, do you think Americans might come to use for people descended from sub-Saharan Africans who happen not to be "black" in this new sense? Presumably you can rule out "Negro" as sounding too much like its grossly offensive variant.

  15. Before answering your question, dearieme, I want to point out that this isn't a 'new' AmE sense of black. It's a much-undiscussed use, but it's probably at least as old as the re-claiming of 'black' as a term of self-reference--probably older. Its use can be found in contexts like the Black community, the Black church, etc. It is this sense of Black that the term African-American came to (partly) replace in the late 1980s--though I noted in my research at the time that while the mainstream press was keen to replace all blacks with African-Americans (often with humorous consequences--e.g. a company's accounts being "back in the African-American"), the African-American press and speakers like Jesse Jackson (a vocal supporter of African American) still used black a lot as an adjective (e.g. black children, black businesses) while preferring African American as a noun.

    Incidentally, another bit of evidence supporting the existence an ethnic (rather than 'racial') sense of black in the US is the contrast of black (or Black) with Hispanic. Black Hispanic people do not have the same cultural history as the descendants of US slaves, and thus are sometimes from the denotation of black, as when a form asks one to 'choose one: black, white, Hispanic. Such forms have got much more sophisticated in recent years, with options like African American or black (non-Hispanic), etc. (Mixed race is another recent innovation in such forms.)

    Since there are multiple senses of black, including the quasi-racial senses, people use black to refer to black Africans as well as to black Americans in some contexts. Of course, one can also refer to people who don't conform to the narrower sense of black as African (or Nigerian, etc.) or as Hispanic (if relevant), or Jamaican, etc.

    In BrE, one hears Afro-Caribbean a lot. In the US, I'm more accustomed to just hearing particular nationalities: Haitian, Dominican, etc. But others may have different experiences of that--depending on the demographics of where they live, no doubt.

  16. ' England, some people refer to themselves as Black, but this self reference extends to people who were not only not descendants of slaves, but who are descended from people in places like India and Australasia. A couple of decades back, Black referred to what is now called Black and Asian.'

    Just thought I'd add what seems to be the modern preferred political terminology in Britain for this wider 'black' group, or in fact anyone not in the racial/cultural white majority: BME - that is, 'Black and Minority Ethnic' (usually followed by 'community/ies' or 'group[s]'). Why 'black' doesn't fall under the umbrella of 'minority ethnic groups' is a bit of a puzzle to me, I must say; nor do I imagine that anyone refers to him or herself in this way: I think it's just been settled on as delightfully non-specific and thus having the least potential for offence/exclusion.

  17. I stand corrected, Anon. Thanks for the reminder. I too had wondered about the distinction between Black and Minority Ethnic - particularly in light of the 'white' minorities that now exist in some boroughs/cities. Do you think that the BME designation might be short-lived in that regard?

  18. Well, I continue to be confused as to what I should refer to someone as if they are of black african heritage but live in the UK or US or elsewhere. What is the preferred term that won't get me shouted at for being racist? (Considering I've only ever met one person who is black african, and that was a chap from Uganda living in Australia. Our neighbour, who is from South Africa, commonly refers to them as 'those black bastards' which disgusts me.)

    I just wish we didn't need to identify people by this sort fo thing at all. Can't we be one big happy family?

    That being said, I really think the mix of people in your country determines what labels are available. In NZ with so few people from the 'sub-sahara' of black african extraction, you'll find our forms ask for you to distinguish which type of polynesian or european you might be.

    This list is from a job application form with 'Learning Media', part of the Ministry of Education.

    New Zealand Maori
    New Zealand European or Pakeha
    Non-New Zealand European
    Cook Island Maori
    Indo Fijian
    Other (please specify)

    Note the distinction between Fijian Indian and Indian from India! I've friends in the Indian community, and the two groups are very distinct. I think it's a bit of a caste issue, but I could be wrong.

    a pasty pinkish white and very freckled irish-scottish mix

  19. In the Australian bush, terms like blackfella and whitefella are extremely common. They even depart from their clearly ethnic origins and come to refer to ways of doing things. For example, to have your tea blackfella is to half-fill the pannikin (enamel-coated metal cup) with boiling water and top it up with cold water. To have it whitefella, on the other hand, is to have it with just hot water*.

    Blackfella and whitefella are by far the most common terms used in classifying people into ethnic groups and they are used by everyone without any notion of maliciousness. In the city though, things are a little different. I was randomly talking to someone the other day, and when they mentioned someone in the top end, I asked 'is he a blackfella or whitefella?'. This is a very common way to ask about someone's ethnicity (bear in mind that I had a good reason to query said person's ethnicity), but I was absolutely shot down and accused of being racist.

    *There doesn't seem to be a correlation between a person's ethnicity and the way they have their tea. I have mine blackfella, otherwise it's too hot for me.

  20. The first Salon article comes across simply as sour grapes and jealousy. I am a white person but I have read that native black Americans sometimes resent immigrant black Jamaicans. Only in a PC person's mind does "black" mean anything except the color of one's skin. I mean, what do you call the American-born child of a British-born child of a black African immigrant? Oh, what a tangled web -- unless you stick with the word black.

    (Jamaica is an English-speaking Caribbean country, so Jamaicans do not face the language barriers common to other immigrant groups. However, because ninety percent are black, some encounter housing or hiring discrimination. Despite suffering from similar prejudices, there is little solidarity between Jamaican blacks and African-Americans. Jamaicans often differentiate themselves from US blacks because they feel they are more ambitious and less prejudiced against whites. Some African-Americans, in turn, resent Jamaican-American intrusion in their neighborhoods, especially when it is associated with the drug-culture of the Rastafarian followers (Murrell, 1995).)

  21. I don't see how it's PC to think that in AmE black is used to refer to an ethnic/cultural group (in addition to the colo(u)r of skin sense--remember words can have more than one sense/meaning, and those senses may contrast with one another!).

    The Salon article also didn't strike me as "sour grapes". I thought it was an interesting perspective on the situation and how it may be perceived differently by people with different backgrounds.

    It's certainly not as silly as the claim that David Beckham is the UK's most "baddest black man".

  22. Last night I was reading Nobody's Child by Kate Adie, which is about adopted children, or - more specifically - children who are Foundlings. Regarding race and colour, I find the following excerpt to be of interest. And I quote:

    Matters came to a head in 1904, when the US Supreme Court found itself deliberating on events which outdid any Hollywood Western film in a dusty pair of towns on the Mexican border. Three Sisters of Charity, four nurses and an agent from the Foundling Hospital had set out from New York with forty children aged between two and six. Their destination was the town of Clifton-Morenci - a pair of small mining settlements that had grown into a 'Wild-West' boomtown as thousands of Mexican immigrant workers settled next to white frontier families to work underground and in the smelters. It was a noisy place with low pay, hard work and lots of tensions.
    The train and its foundlings trundled towards Arizona, with all the children already alloted to families. There was one small fly in the ointment: these were all Irish children and in 1904 the Irish - along with Italians and Jews - were not seen as 'white'. However, the parish priest in Clifton-Morenci had vetted the prospective parents for these Catholic children himself - and all should have gone according to plan for the selected parents were Mexican and therefore no more 'white' than the Irish orphans. The train pulled into Clifton station where the intending parents and a large number of other Mexicans were waiting. Curious onlookers included a number of 'Anglo' women who trotted after the first batch of sixteen orphans as they were taken to the local church to meet their new families. They gawped in disbelief as they saw small blond children being handed over to people whom they deem inferior - Mexican women who to them were degenerate, uneducated and not fit to care for white children. They decided that, in this instance, the Irish must become honourary whites.

  23. I, a white European Scot, remember being in a writers' group in Munich along with two white liberal Minnesotan women (I use "Minnesotan" only as a term of geographic origin) when they both, separately, referred to an "African-American writer from Scotland." I bristled. I asked them in what possible sense this woman was African-American, and said she was simply Scottish, and happened to be black. Certainly she was culturally neither African nor American, but in fact entirely Scottish. I have to say, too, that I have yet to meet a black American who does not utterly prefer the term "black" to "African-American", both in self-description and description by others. And I have found that black people here (in the wider, UK sense) tend to describe themselves either as "black," "British" or "black British." Or just "Scottish."

    There does seem to be a lot more angst (GerE) over these issues in the US than the UK.

  24. Readers of this discussion might be interested in Stephen Colbert's discussion with the author of the first Salon article, which you can see here.

  25. I worked in a prodominatly Black work place in St Louis MO (I am white) during the 2008 election. All of the Black people I worked with considered Barack Obama a Black mane. As far as I understand it is that they consider Black as their Color, not their Ancestory.

    Also, The people I worked with, prefered being refered as Black, not African Americans,

    I also have a cousin in law from Kenya, and he calls his mixed race daughter black because she was born in America, and she does not have any slave Ancestory.

  26. Black Americans are not a monolith, so I can only express my own opinion (Barack Obama is Black and so are the most of the Africans* I know who live in America) Africans and relay the opinions I've gathered from my own relatives, friends and colleagues who are also Black. Out of the eighty or so people I asked, only one said that Africans living in America shouldn't be considered "Black" even if they managed to gain citizenship, but he was laughing as he said it and continued to laugh when he questioned it further, so I don't know that he meant what he said.

    The others all said that of course those people were Black, and some even thought the premise of the article was ridiculous.

    There. Original question answered.

    I know I'm late to the party, and I am glad of it!

    Because when I first found this post a few days ago, I was absolutely appalled at many of the comments I read here. While I realised the that article claiming that Barack Obama was not Black had been written by a Black American** writer, I was rather disappointed that lynneguist didn't appear to strive to learn (after posting) whether the way Dickerson defined "Blackness" was a widely held view among Black Americans.

    Even worse were the comments from readers who are White-but-have-a-Black-relative/colleague/friend/person-I-read-about and who felt a need to express an opinion on how "Black Americans" feel about other Black peoples. I was disgusted by some of those. (Sorry Cameron. Even though I am of the same opinion as the Black Americans you'd met at the time of your comment, I having you – an out-grouper – make the assertion probably wasn't at all helpful in this particular discussion.)

    Particularly horrible the one that said I am a white person but I have read that native black Americans sometimes resent immigrant black Jamaicans. Only in a PC person's mind does "black" mean anything except the color of one's skin. Because I consider myself to be something other than a "PC person" and the term "Black" has a wealth of other meanings than the colour of my not-black skin. And that's a shame because I read the article kay was talking about back when it was first posted to Salon, and while I didn't think Dickerson's attitude screamed "jealousy and sour grapes", I did think it reeked of "disgruntled and exclusry".

    And since the attitude Dickerson presented in her article was one I've run into before (albeit in those instances the attitude came from people I knew to be hateful and exclusionary), I also didn't think of Dickerson's article as "an interesting perspective on the situation and how it may be perceived differently by people with different backgrounds" as Lynne did. Perhaps I missed something there because I relegated the article to the work of such attitudes the first time I read it, years ago.

    Perhaps, it is time for me to give the article a new chance whilst consciously attempting to not see it in that light.

    *Explaining this part of my comment would require its own discussion that wouldn't be appropriate here, I think.
    **I am one of those Black people who prefer not to use the term "African American".

    Relieved To Be Still Anonymous In NJ

  27. Even later to the party...

    In college my best friend, who came from Denver, Colorado, told me the term she preferred was "African-American" -- but that was in 1979, when the common formal term was Afro-American which had only recently replaced Black (and Black had only replaced Colored and Negro ten or fifteen years earlier). I've been conscientious about using African-American ever since, but that was long ago and I've lost touch with her during the intervening 40 years. Her current preference may very well be entirely different by now, and in light of this discussion I believe I need to rethink my usage. The entire discussion has been very enlightening.

    To return to the subject of the Salon article, in the hindsight of seeing the reaction of the most bigoted section of the American population as well as the entire birther fabrication which was continually pushed by our now current president, I think the article was disingenuous. The larger white population identified him as a black man and unfortunately the worst part of that population showed their true selves in how they reacted with some truly horrendous imagery.

    As to the "African-American writer from Scotland" label, I probably wouldn't have made Cameron who posted above me totally happy either, but at least I'd know that if someone is from Scotland you can't call them a hyphenated-American writer (seriously, women from Minnesota? what were you thinking?). I would probably have come up with something like African-Scottish or African-Scots. I think this tendency to hyphenate ancestry origins is a peculiarly American trait brought on by the fact that none of us are native to here unless we're American Indian.

    Since we're trying to identify context, I'm white, female, over 60, from western South Dakota, USA.

  28. Being Russian I remember I was quite socked to discover that it's OK to call people "black" instead of "African-American". I used to think of "black" as an offensive word, much like the n-word. Actually, in Russia calling someone N***o is neutral (however in recent years some people try to avoid this word due to American influence), while "black" may sound offensive, and African-American is just a mouthful.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)