Monday, August 9, 2010

Nelson Mandela was American?

There is an epistemological epidemic of epic proportions ravaging the minds of Americans. It stems from a particular form of sloppy concept-formation in which one fails to properly attach all essentials to a definition. It manifests in both infuriating and amusing ways when the concept is then misapplied in practice.

Perhaps the most common case is the term "African-American." This is a legitimate concept with a specific and applicable meaning. It refers to people of African descent who are Americans. Should be easy enough, right? Wrong.

Due to our (and here I mean Americans, broadly) desperate concern to never offend anybody ever, we tip-toe around issues of race as though they were a sulfuric acid spitting hydra with PMS. We will do almost anything to avoid the subject, but sometimes you are forced to call a sulfuric acid spitting hydra a sulfuric acid spitting hydra. The resulting side stepping, back pedaling, and other forms of evasive footwork are often downright hilarious to observe.

Enter My Boss. At the time of the 2008 presidential election (again this is America, people), My Boss decided it was good management strategy to tally everyone's vote (he probably got this from a management book in the 90s, which is no doubt also where he got his tie). I'm pretty sure he regrets attempting to collect mine.

My Boss: I think it's pathetic that South Africa had a bla- uh, er, mm, I mean, African-American president before we did.

Me: South Africa had an African-American president?

My Boss: Yeah, Nelson Mandela.

Me: Nelson Mandela was American?

My Boss: Well, African-American.

Me: Um, I don't think he was American.

My Boss: Well, uh, erm, I mean, you know what I mean. He was African-American.

Me: I'm pretty sure he was South African, just like all the other South African presidents.

My Boss: No, no, he wasn't American, but he was African-American.

Me: Well, anyhow, Obama's mostly Arab, so...

I must admit, I enjoyed watching him struggle. The man just could not bring himself to say the word "black." That was probably a taboo in his 90s management books, too.

Nelson Mandela: a great man, a great American.

News flash, everyone: using the word "black" to describe someone's race is not offensive. But you know what probably is offensive? Calling a Brit, or Aussie, or Canuck, or South African American. Or calling someone with no ties to Africa whatsoever since homo erectus African (by the way, am I the only one getting a homoerotic vibe from that species?).

Would you call Mao Asian-American? Or Che Mexican-American? Well, that would actually be really funny, so maybe you should, but when it comes to the guy with ebony skin and a limey accent, tell the hydra to go fuck itself. That man is not African-American. He's black, just black. Say it with me: buh-lack. And you know what? He probably knows it and is cool with it and doesn't want you to shit yourself over it. Come to think of it, he's probably lots of other cool things, too. You should go ask him. I promise he won't be offended.

Assuming of course you don't ask him how it feels to be the first in his family to walk upright, and whether Obama still has his support in 2012.

With love,

S. Misanthrope

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