Interrogating The Language Of Identity And Decolonisation

History consultant and co-ordinator of African identity advocacy project TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) Kwaku lays out his arguments for the use of African instead of Black, and other identity and decolonisation terminologies.

Words are not merely tools to describe things, ideas or concepts. Words often come with loaded meaning. At the extreme, it can have a pernicious impact on one’s psyche, wellbeing or sense of self or worth.


In the short space allowed in this publication, I’ll key in on some of my positions on terminologies and concepts, from and an African and British context. A more comprehensive coverage can be found in the Interrogating Language Of Identity And Decolonising programme. This event is likely to be repeated in November, so keep an eye by checking the listings on the website.

African, Black, or People Of Colour?

Although People of Colour is gaining popularity even among anti-racists, this term is inherently racist. Because it presupposes that White is not a colour and others every other heritage. As White is also a colour, it makes the term nonsensical.

Black as a descriptor of Africans has gained a certain added ubiquitousness, especially after the death of George Floyd and the re-invigorated global Black Lives Matter activities.

The point is that when used in the context of the US, it unequivocally refers to Africans, or African Americans. But in the UK, it can have a diffused meaning, as there’s the political Black, which essentially means any non-European, and even some racially discriminated European groups.

It is particularly for this reason that I advocate the use of African to refer to Africans, or as some prefer – people of African heritage. Ah, but it’s not so simple.

African Origin, African Heritage, or African Descent?

First of all, there is only one human race. Secondly, even the most racist person with any education will accept the fact that the human species came from Africa. Hence, everybody – Europeans, Asians, you name it – can be described as of African descent or origin! If this idea is new to you, then relax and mull over it.

So of the three choices, African heritage is the most appropriate descriptor for African people. However, there are some, like me, who advocate dispensing with the ‘heritage’ appendage, arguing that any person of African heritage is nothing else but an African. So the ‘heritage’ bit is redundant – surplus to requirement.

In fact, we are in the middle of IDPAD (International Decade for People of African Descent) 2015-2024. The UN initiative aims to “promote a greater knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture and contribution of people of African descent to the development of societies”.

Whilst this is laudable, the ‘descent’ bit is a tad bit problematic. As it can be argued that it actually refers to all human beings. However, one has to understand the UN is a multi-national organisation, so in order to have an accord there are often compromises to be made for the greater goal.

Another issue some of us identity activists have with the UN and its agencies is the use of Afrophobia. I am among those advocating that this word that speaks to discrimination against African people are things African, should be spelt with an “i”, that is Afriphobia. As this strengthens the ties to the African continent, rather than evoking images of a comb or a particular hairstyle.

Afro-Caribbean, African-Caribbean, or Caribbean?

Well, not only does Afro-Caribbean once again evoke images of a comb or a hairstyle, this expression is so 1970s. It’s passé, and should be left alone. Caribbean refers to anybody that has Caribbean antecedents – so they could be African, European, Asian, etc. In order words, its focus is only on the Caribbean, and not specific to any racial heritage.

To belabour the point, Caribbean is in no way synonymous with Caribbean people of African heritage. If the latter is what’s of interest, then the correct terminology is African-Caribbean. By the way, this term does not cover all African and Caribbean people. It covers only those who are both African and Caribbean.

To cover all African people, one should either use just African, which refers to all people of African heritage irrespective of whether they are born on the African continent or its diaspora, such as UK, US or the Caribbean. Or if necessary, use, for example, African/African-Caribbean.

Black History, Africana Studies or African History?

For the same reason that I argue that Black is a diffused terminology, I say Black History is not synonymous with African history, as many would have observed from some of the events put out in October under the Black History Month banner. African history, and Africana studies, which is usually offered by higher education establishments, both speak to Africans histories in and outside Africa.

Another fact which many supporters are unaware is that the introduction of Black History Month in Britain was predicated upon the African Jubilee Year Declaration of 1987. It spoke only to African people and their concerns. Such as fighting racism and apartheid. The logo highlighted the 25th anniversary of the founding of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), the 100th anniversary of the birth of the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey,  and the 150th anniversary of the so-called emancipation of enslaved Africans in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. So it’s not surprising that some of us want to align closely to the Declaration by using African History Month.

BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) or AAME (African, Asian, Minority Ethnic)?

Well, one theatre company has recently jettisoned the use of BAME. And there have been several debates of late urging the ditching of the term. The government says it shouldn’t be used. But unfortunately several government departments continue to use it, which has resulted in an online petition that aims to remind Boris Johnson to have his government implement its own advice.

My view is that where we need to use an umbrella term, then it should be AAME, which stands for African, Asian, and Minority Ethnic. This obviously highlights the African, instead of the diffused Black terminology.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Africans?

I argument that although there was some African complicity, it was never a trade. Hence, I opt for the use of Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Africans.

Slavery Memorial Day, International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, or International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement?

Since 1998, UNESCO has urged member states to mark August 23 as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, as a way of highlighting “the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples”.

Many British heritage institutions mark the day either as Slavery Memorial Day and Slavery Remembrance Day. Whether ‘Remembrance’ or ‘Memorial’ is used, they both echo of what some call Wilberfarce – that’s the benevolent European saviours of the enslaved Africans.

This belies the fact that the August 23 date actually speaks to Africans in Haiti in 1791 taking agency by fighting and defeating the European powers of France, Spain and Britain, and eventually founding the nearly thirteen years later the Haitian Republic. This is the only statehood to come out of an African-led rebellion in the Caribbean or the Americas.

2020 has a number of significant milestones within global African history, which also buttress the argument for the use of the African descriptor. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s greatest pan-Africanist icons – Marcus Garvey.  He was once asked: ‘Are you an African or a Jamaican?’ He replied: ‘I will not give up a continent for an island.’

Whilst he is better known for founding the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), few people realise it was simultaneously founded in Jamaica in 1914 with a double barrel name. The other being ACL (African Communities League).

It’s also the 120th anniversary of the Pan-African Conference. The body that organised this 1900 Conference in London was named the African Association, and was led mainly by African-Caribbean people.

Another group of African-Caribbean people, including the likes of the British-born politician of Barbadian ancestry John Archer and the Trinidadian doctor John Alcindor, co-founded the African Progress Union in 1918. The organisation was meant to be “an Association of Africans from various parts of Africa, the West Indies, British Guiana, Honduras and America.”

These were people who recognised that they were African, even though they were born in the diaspora. They actually made a reality what the historian Runoko Rashidi was to articulate several decades later: “We are African people. Get comfortable with it. And learn to love your African self.”

I rest my case.

Kwaku blogs on African identity issues on and is the editor of ‘Look How Far We’ve Come: The Race/Racism Primer’