Dadahead has a post on Andy Rooney and Don Imus talking about "black" and "African American". I have no real problem with his conclusions, and no idea of defending R & I; but there's more to be said.
First off, people are in fact trying to tell me (along with Rooney and Imus) how I ought to use my native language. Many people object to being told that kind of thing. They are wrong; but not quite completely wrong.
People have a right, within some limits, to decide what they are to be called. When Clive Staples Lewis, aged 7 or so, declares that from now on he is Jack, the members of his family go along with it; and for the rest of his life he is Jack to all his friends. (Sure beats Clive, even though he was not named after the imperialist.)
And if an identifiable group makes a collective decision on what it's to be called -- you know it's identifiable because it is identified by some name or other -- that decision is to be heeded, other things being equal or nearly so. There will be objections at this point that "collective decision" is impossible and oxymoronic. Strictly speaking, yes, it's impossible, but I know one when I see one.
I saw one in the 1960s. When I learned the English language, the word Negro was used in my part of the world by decent people , by which I mean people who were not overtly racist, did not want to be racist, and did not like racism, however far they may have been from the impossible dream of really being free from racism. There were other words, to be sure.
One word was not used, and that's that. (It's rather an open secret that the word is used in ceratin contexts by members of the group. That's their privilege. This annoys a lot of stupid whiny honkies -- I claim the privilege of using that term -- but to hell with them.)
There was "colored". I'm not quite sure what was wrong with it, but it was not what one used. I think it seemed rather patronizing and euphemistic. Euphemistic? You mean there's something wrong with being [black/Negro/colored]? Of course not; it sounds as if the speaker thinks there's something wrong with it: that's the patronizing part. But I don't insist on the point.
There was also "black". Sounded a bit dubious. Makes one think of Little Black Sambo. And let's please not get into whether Sambo must have been Indian if he dealt with tigers, if only because that will remind us to start fighting about the terminology for the descendants of the the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, exluding Eskimos, oooooops, Inuit. Anyway, it didn't sound right to me.
And then in the '60s there was a rather sudden collective decision, I know one when I see one, to make a change. From then on, the word was to be "Black". Jules Feiffer did a typically funny sarcastic treatment of Black, and it was right, but in the long run irrelevant. And it seemed to me that rather a lot of the older generation of Negroes did not like the new name much more than I did, but they saw which way things were going, and fighting about it was not what they needed, and they swallowed their discomfort. (I could be all wrong about that, and I certainly have no authority here, but so it seemed to me at the time.)
And I went along, of course, because people have a right to choose what they are called, within some limits of reason, and all the more so when they've been taking inconceivable amounts of shit for hundreds of years. And by golly, pretty soon Black sounded right. And in not too many years, Negro actually sounded a bit embarrassing.
And now we come to "African American", with or without a hyphen. Someone is telling me that I ought to change my vocabulary again, and I am to decide whether to do it this time.
To begin with, I've already changed once, by request. Are names to be changed every so often, with the season's fashions? Right, that's an old guy's sort of argument, and the young and flexible people may well want to make the change immediately. (They, of course, would be making it for the first time.) And it's a small sort of request to make of one's friends and family; if my cousin, whose legal birth-certificate name I had almost forgotten at one time, told me that her first name was changing again from the one that I've used almost all our lives, it would change, blood being thicker than water. But it takes a bit more presumption to keep shaping the vocabulary of millions of strangers.
And just who is telling me? I do not sense the consensus that I did 40 years go, or anything like it. I could be wrong, but I don't see it.
And I am expected to change a good solid forceful one-syllable English word to a nasty heptasyllabic compound, no more sensible or meaningful than the thoroughly inaccurate "black". I don't see the purpose. Or rather, I do see the political purpose, and I disagree with it.
Dadahead says that "African American" signals that you are trying to be sensitive about these things, and that's true and good. He says that it offends no one; in effect, that it's neutral. I disagree on that. Aha! I found something to disagree with, justifying the existence of this posting.