Define ‘African American’

It’s really none of my business what race people call themselves or others, but I believe it’s useful for society to frequently think about how race is defined and what purpose those definitions serve.

Race is decided by society. There’s no gene for race-just the characteristics that society groups together to label races.

Society used to designate people from Scandinavia as a separate race from Greeks. Now they’re all just white Caucasian Europeans. Politics often inspire the adding or deleting of racial designations.

I wonder if the definition of “African American” is being morphed to include Barack Obama.

Once again, what race someone claims to be is none of my business and I have no feelings one way or the other. I’m OK with whatever designations society deems appropriate. I’d just like to point out that the definition of “African American” seems to be morphing, just in case people want to talk about it.

Before Obama-mania, it appeared to me that “African American” referred to the descendants of slaves. That definition was useful because it grouped people who had similar historical experiences and therefore shared certain cultural traditions.

Now it appears that the definition refers to anyone whose ancestry is from Africa. Not to complicate things, but the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl I took to prom in high school was not “African American” even though she was from South Africa and spoke Swahili.

Nor have I ever heard of people from North Africa being referred to as “African American.” So must one be descended from dark-skinned Africans? I emphasize descended because one does not need dark skin to be “African American.” No one would challenge Harold Ford Jr.’s classification even though his skin tone is almost as light as mine. I don’t say that to cause offense; I know that society has made that a sensitive issue.

Another sensitive issue is whether or not people descended from dark-skinned Africans who were taken to Haiti or Brazil are considered “African Americans,” “Haitian Americans” or both.

It’s no concern to me what is decided when these issues come up, but I see value in making clarifications.

It appears to me that the value in designating races in today’s world is to be able to target and define populations that need assistance in overcoming racial discrimination.

The Ken Garff Automotive Group’s advertisements using Confucius and Adam Sandler’s movie “Click” are both full of racism against Far East Asians. Outcry from non-Asians has been muted or silent, however, because of the “model-minority” stereotype society has given to Far East Asians. Because Asian Americans do not appear to need assistance in overcoming discrimination, society ignores their racial issues. Some might even disagree that the jokes are “racist.”

Don Imas made top headlines for a week, however, because he attacked a race that everyone acknowledges as suffering from discrimination.

Since discrimination tends to be a more important factor than ancestry when designating someone as belonging to a racial minority, I don’t think Obama meets the designation. The native Hawaiians he grew up with certainly do, but from what I’ve read, he has little in common with “African-American” politicians such as Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and Ford.

If everyone feels that current racial designations are helpful, then Obama should be on that list. I just think it’s healthy to understand why.