Researching and Writing about Race and Sex – Hidden Power of Words Series, #10

Writing about racialized and sexualized ideas, events, and peoples naturally involves sensitive language. Equally, what is considered appropriate changes over time as one term acquires negative connotations or new language is developed.

For some time now, I almost always use “racialized” or “racialization” instead of “race.” This recognizes the socially constructed nature of how people are raced. People are not white or black but are raced/racialized as White or Black, for example. 

Also, the capital “W” and “B” are deliberate. This helps us remember they are powerful—yet fully arbitrary—social categories.

More recently, I have also started capitalizing the “M” and “W” in cis-Man and cis-Woman because they are likewise powerful—yet fully arbitrary—social categories that are sexualized/genderized.  

But getting back to racialized terminology, more recently I’ve wondered over the difference between Black, African American, African-American, and African-American (as an adjective).

First, regarding the hyphen between the “African” and “American,” there are three schools of thought (and the same would apply to “Mexican” and “American”):

1-    some say to always use the hyphen

2-    some say to never use the hyphen

3-    some say to only use the hyphen when the term functions as an adjective (e.g., African-American students)

There is also a debate from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that looks at “hyphenated Americans” as less than real United Statesians (and yes, “United Statesians” is deliberate – I see ethnical dilemmas with the word “Americans”). This was an era when full assimilation was not only expected but was demanded – but only to the extent that people “looked” and “acted” like a proper White United Statesian, not to the extent that they were granted rights White individuals had.

From Wikipedia:  Cartoon from Puck, August 9, 1899. Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks,
From Wikipedia:
Cartoon from Puck, August 9, 1899. Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?”

 Potential problems with “African American” and its various forms include:

1-    “Africa” is a huge, huge continent.

2-    Not everyone who is “Black” derived from the African continent per se (of course we all did in the long run but that discussion is for another time).

3-    Those called “African Americans” have no more connection to Africa per se than Whites (“European-Americans”) have with the European continent.

4-    “American” refers to all of North and South America, so the technical, precise term would be “African-United Statesian, and that gets awkward. 

Of course anytime a group is being studied and written about their own preferences are important. I’m interested in knowing more about what those who are racialized as non-White prefer to be called—when it is necessary for historical and social examinations to reveal such dynamics and relationships. From what I have found so far, “Black” seems to be an increasingly popular choice because it more accurately describes the associated notions of power and status.

Regardless, we need to remember that “White” and “Black” as racialized categories are fully illogical, have no biological grounding, and in no way refer to the colors “white” and “black” or any actual colors at all.    

Thanks for reading. Be sure and check out the full Hidden Power of Words Series if you haven’t already.