Thursday, March 22, 2012

An African-American South African?

Recently I read a paper in which a student referred to a person in South Africa as an African American. Puzzled, I inquired whether the person was a South African or a black person from the U.S. It was a South African.

It's fine if people want to use the phrase "African American," but it can be used only of Americans who have black skin. Saying that a black South African is African American makes as much sense as saying a white South African is Caucasian American.

The source of the confusion is easily identifiable. A politically correct term (at one time) was transplanted to another country/culture where it is, in very technical linguistic terms, a contradiction or, even more technically, an oxymoron. And this was done to avoid the word "black," I assume. But whatever good intentions are behind politically correct vocabulary such as "African American," their correct use in context is even more important.

So what should have the student done? Well, he or she could have talked about an African South AFrican, which sounds, well, dumb. Or he or she could have said "black South African," but why is it necessary to highlight someone's skin color? Or he or she could have simply said "South African."

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