Here’s something interesting I’ve learned: white people get weird when I call my child “black.” There’s the eye darting back and forth to see if anyone heard, and the shifting from one foot to another indicating a level of discomfort. Oh, and the puzzled look that seems to be silently asking, “Did you mean to say African American?”
What I’ve learned from my black friends is that it’s a personal preference. Most people I know prefer “black.” But, because we’re such a “politically correct” world these days, people—especially white people—are sensitive (maybe overly?) to the term “African American.”
My favorite story about this is from a black man I know from England who now lives in the US. He told me that once when talking with a white woman here in town, he referred to himself in the third person as a black man, and she corrected him by saying, “you mean African American" (it was a statement, not a question). He just stared at her letting a few moments pass while she’s staring back at him as if to say, “Well, aren’t you going to correct yourself?” Finally he says, in his English accent, “I’m not from America.”
My first experience with this, with our daughter Ava, was when the neighborhood kids (twins, black) dropped by to say hello after Ava was born. When she was first born, Ava was very pale, with straight black hair. One of the twins asked, “What is she?” I was a little confused by the question, but then answered, “She’s African American.” By the look on their faces, I may as well have said she was a Martian. Then the other twin says, “Do you mean like Indian or Native American?” Now I’m staring at them like they’re from Mars, after all, they are both “African American.” My husband steps in and says, “She’s black.” And the light bulb goes on for the twins—and me—and we continue oohing and aahing over Ava.
I quickly learned that when I’m speaking to a black person, I refer to Ava as “black.” When I’m talking to a white person—other than my family or close friends—I say “African American.” It’s a whole lot easier than enduring the momentary awkward silence and the looks (though sometimes I do simply say: In general, most black people I know prefer or are okay with the term black). But, for the most part, I don't feel obligated to explain “black” vs “African American” to a complete stranger. It’s probably not really my place to anyway, what with me being white and all.