Is the expression ‘African-American’ offensive? Yes, it is.
That is because the term is ethnocentric. It assumes that the United States is in the center of the world. Here’s why.
The expression comes to replace the word ‘black’. But it denotes not only skin color or ethnic origin, it also assumes citizenship. An African-American is, by definition, American. But not all black people are American. In fact, most of them are not.
What would Americans call French blacks? What would Americans call blacks from Nigeria or South Africa or the U.K.? Even in the U.S. itself, if a black man walks down the street in New Jersey, that hardly means he’s a U.S. citizen, does it? Why call him American?
Why would a new term for ‘black’ include the word ‘American’? Why would a new term for ‘Asian’ include the word ‘American’? People would only suggest the expression (and, later, adopt it) if they automatically assumed that the U.S. is in the center of the world, that most people come from America, are in America, and that not much outside of America exists. That seems to be the only way such an expression could get acceptance. The fact that it got to be so popular means that a large part of the American people believe this deep down.
This isn’t new. The term ‘American’ itself has hinted at this for years. Ask a Canadian if he’s American, and he’ll say “No, I’m Canadian.” But a Canadian citizen is an American in the same way that a citizen of the U.S. is American. And let’s not even mention South America.
The terms ‘American’, ‘African-American’, ‘Asian-American’ and their like tell us something about the people who invented them, about the people who adopted them, and about the people who use them.