Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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American Pied
Recently I was reminded by a linguaphiles post of the habit in the USA of calling any person of African extraction, no matter their nationality, "African American". The most egregious example I ever witnessed (and I wish it had been preserved on Youtube, because it would have made a lovely pair for the Dalai Llama pizza joke moment) was when an interviewer asked Nelson Mandela his opinion, "speaking as an African American". That was a few years ago now, but here's a mint-fresh example from a post on Disney movies, which mentions The Color of Friendship (2000). In this movie a white, politically-complacent, apartheid-era South African girl, Mahree, goes on an exchange trip to the USA, where she stays with the family of an American girl, Piper - not realising until she arrives that her hosts are black. In true Disney style, she learns some important life lessons through friendship, and eventually goes back to South Africa with very different opinions from those with which she arrived. In the words of the post: "When Mehree returns to South Africa an enlightened girl and shows Flora, her African American maid, the freedom flag she had sewn into her coat , it is very moving." Needless to say, Flora is South African.

Well, it's fun to stand and point at the insularity, of course, but I'm more interested in the way language is working here. I'm assuming (perhaps rashly) that whoever wrote that sentence doesn't actually believe that the maid Flora is American. In that case, the obvious inference is that the individual semantic components of the phrase "African American" have become fused into one, purely racial epithet, the "American" functioning semantically as "person originating from place that I just mentioned". But does this happen with any of the other double-barrelled epithets in common use? Do Italians in Italy ever get referred to as Italian Americans? Or Chinese people from China as Chinese Americans? I don't think so - at least I've not seen it. It seems something else is going on, then.

Another comparison might be with the way Americans talk about white people as Caucasian (where did that come from, by the way?) without implying that they're from the Caucasus - unless of course they're Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But my impression is that "Caucasian" is used as a semi-technical word - I've mostly heard it in police descriptions - not in ordinary conversation.

Looking closer to home, a comparison might be with English people saying "English" when they mean "British" - which is of course a reflection of English dominance of the Union and the privilege-cum-complacency that that engenders. Perhaps we can extrapolate something similar for "African American", re. American dominance of the entire planet? But that still doesn't explain why this usage is restricted to people of African origin. For a while I wondered whether it might have something to do with the fact that Africa is a continent rather than a country - but then, Asians don't tend to get called Asian Americans, do they?

I still don't have a satisfactory answer to this. Thoughts?

I'm pretty sure that I've heard Italian-American and Polish-American used often enough. I think it's a common construction.

In the UK, we do have Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Welsh, though used more in terms of talking about history and literature rather than everyday identification of ordinary people.

But have you ever heard Italian-American used of people who aren't, in fact, American?

(no subject) - heleninwales, 2013-09-29 01:27 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-29 01:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Actually I did hear Asian-Americans once or twice. But mostly I suspect it's become a safe word (notice the singular), now guaranteed non-insulting, though it's not (what wording is?) as foolproof as users think.

While I don't think that those who use it without consideration assume that the entire world is American, I wonder if they run mentally up against African-Engish? African, uh. South African? Is it okay to say African? Zzzzzt! Brain short-circuit!

I did wonder if the "American" part of the phrase was some sort of politeness modifier. Does "African" on it's own sound somehow rude to American ears?

In the example steepholm quotes above, a British person would use White South African for Mahree and Black South African for the maid.

(no subject) - sartorias, 2013-09-29 01:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
Thank you.

On a related topic, I rather wish we'd retained "Japhetic languages", to go along with Semitic and Hamitic. The philological equivalents of your anthropologist decided to divide the linguistic world up using the three sons of Noah: Japhet was however quickly ousted by the less Romantic "Indo-European".

(no subject) - aerodrome1, 2013-09-30 02:07 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-30 06:53 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - aerodrome1, 2013-10-25 02:05 am (UTC)(Expand)
White people are very uncertain what to call black people because the boundaries of the acceptable change from place to place and time to time. Last time I checked "black" was OK in the UK but potentially not OK in the USA and "people of color" was acceptable in the USA but sounded patronizing in a British context. So what do you use? African-American is- I would submit- one of the completely safe terms- and gets misapplied accordingly.

Caucasian is a real puzzler.

My mostly-white, almost-entirely American student population is very anxious about the correct terminology by which to refer to black people. They often just borrow the terminology in whatever they're reading, to avoid causing offense. (This, of course, backfires when they're reading essays and poetry from black American writers of the first half of the 20th century, and suddenly three-quarters of my students are uncritically using the term "colored" in class...)

I think what's happened is that students like mine have been corrected ("Say African-American!") frequently, in the name of accepting racial diversity in America, but they haven't understood the nuances of race and national identity that support the term "African-American." Asian-American identity is at least theoretically less fraught in America than African-American identity, so the term Asian-American is less likely to be emphasized in schools. (Note also that the unmodified term "Asian" in America usually means "East Asian," especially Chinese, Japanese or Korean, rather than South Asian.)

"Caucasian" is unfortunately mandated by government paperwork; the US Census has its racial terminology stuck in the eugenic past. As a Jew of Eastern European descent, classified in "white" according to present-day American standards, I suppose I probably do have some ancestors who came from around the Caucasus. But that doesn't make it any less ridiculous for me to check the "Caucasian" box when I'm perfectly well aware that the people who invented that box wouldn't have thought of me as belonging to their race in the first place.

But that doesn't make it any less ridiculous for me to check the "Caucasian" box when I'm perfectly well aware that the people who invented that box wouldn't have thought of me as belonging to their race in the first place.

Also that IIRC, 'Caucasion' or rather 'Caucasoid' is a similar level of description, in a technical sense, as 'Negroid' and 'Mongoloid' and we certainly don't use those.

To be honest, 'white' confuses me a lot of the time, too. I mean, my Scandinavian/Celtic-descended self is pretty easy to box up, but people like my Colombian former housemate, who is technically Latino or Hispanic (a term he hates) but in practice has paler skin than I do, and definitely paler than a lot of South America--we did the last census together and had no idea what to put in the ethnicity box. (Actually I had trouble with that one too--I automatically put 'American' but that is really not an ethnicity unless you are actually Native American, but 'some Norwegian and Scottish and other stuff' is not really an availabe box either.) Or my half-white-half-Japanese cousins. Or some (but certainly not all) of the Jewish people I know, who come in a wide variety of skin tones. IDK. It's all weird and confusing.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-29 02:50 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-29 02:52 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2013-09-29 02:59 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rymenhild, 2013-09-29 03:11 pm (UTC)(Expand)
The African-American thing isn't that deep. When the people who make mistakes say it (and my own personal favourite from experience had to do with Othello) they're not thinking about the actual words they're saying and what they mean. Just that they have been conditioned to say 'African-American' instead of 'black,' because their experience is often limited to an American context. So it's habit.

FWIW: As a general rule, I say 'black,' 'Asian,' and 'Indian' (meaning native American, in this case) just because those are the terms preferred by the overwhelming majority of people within my personal friendship circles who fit into said categories. If specific people or circumstances (like addressing a larger audience I don't know personally) require other ones, I'm pretty flexible. But when it's a habit you can still trip up.

Edited at 2013-09-29 02:18 pm (UTC)

Caucasian is one of the three divisions used in the UNESCO Report on the Race Question in 1950 - it seems to relate to divisions from Christoph Meiners (c. 1780) who divided humans into Caucasian and Mongoloid. Negroid seems to be a much later term.

Linaeus had four divisions - homo Americanus, Europoeus, Asiaticus, Africanus - and Kant had four, maybe five, divisions.

I recall hearing Winnie Mandela being described as an African American person of gender, which feels more like a spoof on PCness.

person of gender

I'd not heard that one before - though I suppose it's no different in principle from "person of colour". Can calling gays and lesbians "people of sexuality" be far behind?

(no subject) - sovay, 2013-09-29 09:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-30 07:30 am (UTC)(Expand)
"Black" -> "African-American" is a global search-and-replace in many Americans' minds, and as such, doesn't do context.

Tangentially, it's interesting how the wheel of euphemism has nearly come full circle in the last half-century, in that "colored person" is now as far outside the sphere of civilized discourse as "person of color" is à la mode. (Of course the categories are different, though.)

As so often, it's not the words that are important, I guess, but the connotations they pick up.

oh it is a minefield! I listen to black people in Britain and they call themselves black so that's what I do. My mother never got past "coloured" even though I tried to tell her it had become pejorative. When I was a kid there was a colour in my paintbox called "nigger brown" and that was somehow normal. We have moved on since 1970, thankfully.

It's always made me wonder that we are called "white" when we are pink and beige, and black people are called black when they are mostly brown.

And literally speaking we are all "people of colour". Pinky beige is a colour too.

I never had that paint colour: we did have a rhyme, though, the modern version of which involves tigers. Having said that, it was just a nonsense word to me - like "eeny, meeny, miny, mo". I didn't hear it in ordinary speech until years later.

(no subject) - wellinghall, 2013-09-29 07:02 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-29 09:21 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
There's an equivalent assumption, but it's religious. I've talked about how people assume I'm a non-English speaker, being Jewish. What I don't often talk about is that for many who can tell I'm a native speaker of English (those 'many' include Australians and Americans, but not the British) the assumption is that I must be American. This is face-to-face (ear-to-ear?) so my Australian accent is perfectly clear.

I think there's an underlying assumption of where certain people come from, and we stick to our guns on this despite evidence.

I've talked about how people assume I'm a non-English speaker, being Jewish.

That really surprises me! I don't have figures, but my assumption would have been that there are probably as many Jewish native English speakers as Jewish native speakers of any other language. (Half my friends list consists of Jewish native English speakers, for one thing!) Is that situation different in Australia?

On your other point, though - yes, I think people tend to use perceptual schemata as a convenient alternative to actually listening, and if their default assumption is "American" then you have to step quite grossly beyond the parameters of American speech for them to reconsider.

(no subject) - gillpolack, 2013-10-01 10:18 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Ogden Nash to the rescue:

The one-l lama, he's a priest.
The two-l llama, he's a beast.

I always get that the wrong way round! (As you have noticed.)

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