March 20, 2004

Trouble with Terminology

by PG

By way of the Head Heeb, an article on Senator John Kerry's wife as "An 'African' First Lady for the US?" Jonathan draws the conclusion,"Mozambique-born Teresa Heinz Kerry can never be the United States' first African-American first lady," but I'm not sure the case is so open-and-shut.

A similar difficulty with labels comes up when considering other famous white Americans of African origin, like Dave Matthews and Charlize Theron, both born and raised in South Africa. Although Mrs. Kerry's lack of interest in maintain a connection to Mozambique lessens her claim to be African, Matthews at least returns frequently to his native country and uses it as a source for his music and business. What description other than "South African-American" would be appropriate?

Though I'm reluctant to admit it, this may be an argument in favor of using "black" to describe Americans whose slave ancestors were taken from unknown nations. On the other hand, perhaps the distinction can be maintained if those who were born in Africa specified the country of birth, while American-born people of African descent continue to use the all-encompassing "African-American." So Teresa Heinz Kerry can be our first "Mozambique-American first lady."

March 20, 2004 09:09 PM | TrackBack

It's a pity that I'll probably be dead by 2050 when it is projected that there will no longer be a "majority" race in the United States and hyphenated-Americans might be a thing of the past.

In normal dialogue I use the terms "white" and "black" simply because it takes me too long to say the longer versions.

Oddly enough, my family (on both sides) actually came to this country in the early 20th century -- more recently (I suspect) than many African-Americans. And, in my defense, I have never referred to myself as a Russo-Franco-Germanic-Irish-American.

What would I call Mrs. Heiz-Kerry? Richo-American.

Posted by: Brian at March 20, 2004 09:25 PM

Hmm -- well, having just finished eating spinach tomato curry while my grandmother fussed at me in Telegu, I can't say I'm ready to de-hyphenate my identity. Even on the days when I'd love to be just a plain ol' American (like, the days when we're getting the latest Why You Need To Marry A Nice Indian Boy lecture), I'd have to take drastic measures for that to be true.
Of course, if you don't have much interaction with your ethnic heritage, don't speak the languages or visit family there, then it certainly makes little sense to use your ancestors' homelands to identify yourself.

Posted by: PG at March 20, 2004 09:38 PM

Though I'm reluctant to admit it, this may be an argument in favor of using "black" to describe Americans whose slave ancestors were taken from unknown nations

Yes, this is something to consider. At the law firm I worked at, there was a partner from South Africa (by way of Canada). As it is, I think his kids would be (legally?) entitled to check the "African-American" box when they apply to college. Perhaps not ethically, but they are African-American in some sense.

Posted by: Tung Yin at March 21, 2004 02:04 PM
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