With Obama having been elected President of the United States of America, there’s been a lot of talk about what race he actually is. Race, not just in America, has always been a complex subject. After reading a bit of a discussion about the difference between “African-American” and “black”, and having seen some confusion for the anti-symmetry of “African-American” and “European-American”, I will give my own understanding of this.
With regards to the generic “X-American” descriptor, this is simple. Someone who is of Irish descent will have no problem with Irish-American, especially if he grew up in a primarily Irish-American neighbourhood. Since there wasn’t any particular segregation of white people, different European-American sub-cultures were merged into one large “white” American culture.
On the other end of the spectrum, black people were segregated from that “normal”, “mainstream” and “white” culture, and essentially forced to live in ghettos. Thus, they came to share a sub-culture together, and became known as “African-American”. As mentioned before, this type of sub-culture can occur in the same manner for other peoples given the same type of circumstances (an area in which the majority of people share some common descent; e.g. Irish-American). Obviously, if the different types of Africans weren’t mixed together, then there’d be more distinction given to which type of African one actually is rather than the catch-all term.
As for the general terms “white” and “black”, this was mentioned earlier. Although Europeans may find such a term offensive, Americans do not. This is for the obvious reason that the cultures are quite different. American is not so much a race as it is a culture (although Native-Americans would probably like it to be used for their own), so when describing race, the term white is used for that whole pool of people with some kind of “Caucasian” background (perhaps, I’m not an expert on the exact terms). Likewise, black is not offensive for the those who identify with it (that’s black people, duh).
For Asian-Americans, I think the distinction is made clear more often; one hears “Chinese-American” or “Japanese-American” since I’m sure there are those who have pride in being of their own specific race. It’s the same for Native people, since there are so many different peoples, to be lumped together with others may not be too offensive, but it’s a matter of pride to identify with one’s own specific people.
To summarize, race is a complex subject. Barack Obama may not be “black” in the sense that he does not “directly” share the history of the American culture of black people, but he does have the genetic qualifications as well as skin colour (despite being half-white, most Americans would visually recognize him as black). He is most definitely African-American, just as the son of an Irish man and an American woman living in America could call himself Irish-American (though he may choose not to). It’s just that there’s more emphasis on it (a point of pride of one’s background) if raised in a primarily “X-American” neighbourhood.
In reality, it’s better if people forget about these things, and just accept that colour should not be an issue in the first place. I’m happy Obama was elected and hope that he can do his job in garnering respect for his country (something it doesn’t get from other countries/people of other countries too often). Whatever his race, I hope he can do a good job.