The subtlest way African-Americans have endured racism has been in the traditionally and inescapably framed identification of the people by race and only race, color, if we will, although everyone knows that neither black nor white are colors. Negro, colored, black; all of them have at times been preferable to using the term nigger, unless one were a Klansman or other proponent of Jim Crow, or just downright racist in his heart and/or mind, or just for the moment when not perennially, perpetually. If any one of them, then the unacceptable would always be preferable. Calling oneself African-American and not black is an attempt to side step the marker of race, thus asserting an ethnic identification in its place and as the principal means of identifying the people we used to call black.
Black is a term of color, inescapably a racial marker. All markers and markings have too much to do with stigmas; the connotation we give to the word ‘stigma’ herein applies. The practice of branding slaves might come too mind, probably always remains residual in all talk about the blackness of black people, yet there is no organic reason that that should persist. Skin color is nature, not branding–the subtractive connotations that the notion of blackness has inherited are just that, an inheritance, a product of culture and dissemination. Skin color is the human body’s adaptation to ultra violet radiation over time–a long, long time. Darker skinned people when they move to or live northern latitudes have been known to suffer vitamin D deficiency and the ailments related; and light skinned people from northern latitudes when moving to the central latitudes, or within the Tropics, have been known to get skin cancer. Yes, there is an increase of the risk and the incidence of skin cancer.
The term African-American, like the one Italian-American, is an ethnic identifier. Yes, the term African-Amemrican is an ethnic identification as would be Irish-American or Swedish-American. The fore mentioned identities of Italian-American and Irish-American are identities for me to claim, each in variation on the nationality theme, mine principally being American, at least in my home, the way I was raised to identify with my native land more than with the lands of my ancestors–and I am sure there are plenty of Black or African Americans for whom the identity American is principal, when the focus on social issues is not how we are divided racially.
The idea that I was white was something that could only have sustained itself in racist dialogue; in fact, there was very little discussion of whiteness where I grew up that didn’t have something to do with a general or more traditionally framed racist conversation. It is interesting to note that I only became white in a dialogue–or diatribe–that focussed on the divisions or animosities between black and white people. Even if it were not in itself racist, the use was in discussions on racism. Otherwise the focus was on ethnicity, was on personhood, was on human.
The sociology of whiteness in America had little to do with who was or was not caucasian, something we understood as having validity paleontologically, even if it has lost the credibility it once had in academic discourse. This has everything to do with how endemically racist we were, are, continue to be–even to the point that most dialogue from African American communities also cannot escape the endemically racist rhetoric American underbellies have been famous for, and that’s whether black, white, hispanic or other.
Whiteness was not the principal way I identified myself–even at a time of heightened race consciousness in the 70s. The principal way I identified myself was through ethnicity, any one or all of the ethinicites, as we identify them in America, being part of what I called myself–what are you? I’m Italian, Irish, French and Swiss.
Nationality in America’s bureaucratic systematization is a synonym with ethnicity, although we know that these are often not the same. Nonetheless, Ashkenazi from the former republics of the Soviet Union are called Russians, as are many of the non-Russian Russian speakers, no matter how badly they speak Russian. In my place of work, any non-Russian speaker of Russian is called a Russian, and for years this has included many Ukranians, some of whom might actually be ethnic Russians. An African-American most likely identified himself within the notions of blackness he grew up with, unable to escape the markings of race, whether they be of stereotypical blackness, or of the racist’s definitions of blackness, or of how these racistly drawn stereotypes of negative blackness were extrapolated through theme and variation interplay by African-Americans themselves, or how blackness might be positively asserted as in the black Franco-phone socio-political idea of Negritude [please reference Aimee Cesaire].
Blackness also took upon itself a growing militancy in the late sixties; this sense of black power was more assertive, more aggressive, more beligerent, even. One or another or the other or in any combination thereof, these were typically American in our more overtly aggressive and sometimes violent social nature, that is, interactively among ourselves. However blackness was defined, though, identifying oneself racially was significantly other than defining oneself ethnically, defining oneself ethnically significantly different than defining oneself as a human being first and last. The categories were understood as virtually mutually exclusive; race and ethnicity. They were not always.
The categorical distinction of African American has likeness with that of Italian American and all other ethno-centric, nationality-rooted variations on being American. This idea that a people can manage how racist dialogue affects them by changing the name we use to reference them is not a naive one. It is not that prejudices cannot arise for or about ethnicity, or that a conflation of racist rhetoric and hatred cannot happen to an ethnicity. What is important to note is that by asserting ethnicity as the chief identifying marker, African Americans are mutually identified in a way white people principally identify themselves, lessening the otherness of racial identity either when placed against the traditionally mutually exclusive whiteness or when the ethnic identities of Europeans are placed against, as in counter-distinction with, a mutually exclusive category of blackness.
It is integral to understand that the term African-American is a rhetorical attempt to side-step the rhetoric of racism; in managing the rhetoric of race and racism in such a subtle yet effective way, the psychology of racism is also addressed positively and proactively. The effects on psychology based on language use and choice is tangible and definable.
It is true that the only people who focus on the whiteness of white people are themselves racists, black or white; or are either overtly or inadvertently engaging in racist dialogue. In fact, no one has ever referred to me as white except white people entering or nearing racist argument, or African-Americans, who themselves might not see ethnicity before they see color, that is, race. African-Americans, hoping to side step dialogues or diatribes caught in the vice of race–and yes, race in America is a vice–refuse to call themselves black. Naming themselves black, if not in carefully orchestrated contexts of communication, puts African-Americans in a diametric position with whiteness, which is always in one way or another racistly drawn. I can only be white where someone else is black–we do define principally within a binary frame, diametrically. However, among the many ethnic groups in America, African-American is one; there is inclusion, at least rhetorically. Race just might become incidental if the rhetoric of ethnicity and mutual inclusion among many persists. If incidental, then racial markings (stigmas) cannot remain overarching, either in negative or positive stereotyping, neither of which handles the reality of the simple separate African-American human-being very well whether white people or black people use them. (Do you see how the focus on white and black immediately puts diametrically opposed positions into an arena?)