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05 March 2013

Why "the African American Community" Is Dangerous

Oooo! Such an incendiary title. Of course, I don't mean that the African American community itself is dangerous; I mean that the term "the African American community" is dangerous. (In fact, I don't even think that it is a thing.) We all need to stop saying "the African American community" (AAC). It's a hypercorrection, one order worse than people saying "African American" because they mistake "black" as a derogatory term. It is not. "Black" is, however, a racist term--although, it is no more racist than any other term denoting racial identity. All such terms reify and perpetuate the structural racism that permeates our society. That, however, is not to argue that we should do away with all racial terms. Race is a social construct and, thus, not "real," but inasmuch as race is treated as real, we need a way to talk about it so we can address it and mitigate its negative consequences.

The term AAC assumes the existence of a distinct culture (and linking race to culture can often lead to "culture of poverty"-type arguments, dangerous because they obfuscate the structural racism that is so harmful). AAC assumes that blacks are a monolithic people without internal diversity, and this is the land of stereotypes. I, afterall, do not belong to "the white community" or "the German-American community" (unless my membership card somehow got lost in the mail), and I find myself to be a few standard deviations away from the typical white person in many ways, so why would I assume that people of other races or ethnicities are different?

There certainly are "African American communities," though. For example, I work in Milledgeville, Georgia, where there is an AAC. In this case, AAC would be appropriate because there is a community built on institutions (e.g. the Black Church) and connected by a social network. Talking about local AAC's highlights the prevalence of segregation, which can be useful, but this notion of community cannot--and should not--be ramped up to the national level.

In closing, I must admit that I write this from a place of extreme privilege so everything I argue above should be tempered by that. The imposition of labels is the imposition of power so I am certainly open to arguments from those who would presumably be members of "the African American community" that the term is in some ways preferable.

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