Sunday, August 21, 2011

What's African-American in Korean? How's it different from 흑인?

Question today comes from K.B. Ansari about the term "African-American."
I was watching Korean television and I came across someone talking about black culture, hip-hop and so forth. I never knew of a way to say "black" in Korean (other than the color) and always used 아프리카 미국인. To see this other way caught my attention and I wanted to see if it has any other meanings behind it before I started to use it.

Does '흑인' mean anything else? I don't want to start referring to myself and say something degrading. Not to say that I believe it will, but just to be on the safe side.

정말 감사합니다! ^^

흑인 is a term to refer to black people in general. They are not region- or heritage-specific.

아프리칸 미국인 is not a Korean word. Natural term Koreans use is 미국계 흑인 (rough, literal translation: Americanized Black) although it is not exactly what "African American" implies historically and politically in US. But culturally and colloquially, it means "African American."

Usually the next question I get is: "How do you say Korean American?" The term is 한국계 미국인 (an American with Korean heritage, i.e. Korean American). When you compare it to English, it's almost literal translation.

Then comes an inevitable question: "Then how come Koreans don't have the term, African American?" Here are my three favorite explanations out of many:
  1. You cannot translate a word literally and conclude it's not the same as English. Language evolves and concept changes. Each word comes and goes. "Americanized Black" may not sound right to us, but when Koreans say 미국계 흑인, they don't mean to say Americanized Black. Instead, they are saying African American and with utmost respect.
  2. Technically, "~계 ~인" is associated with the country of origin or heritage that is associated with certain countries. For instance, Koreans say 한국계 미국인, 러시안계 미국인, 페루계 미국인, or 아이티계 미국인. But 서양계 미국인 or 아프리카계 미국인 is not as commonly heard. They are not incorrect, but they sure sound weird... yet.
  3. Where there is a rule, there are lists of exception. Since the word changes out of socio-cultural and political necessity, there are exceptions to rule #2 too. For instance, you may hear 라틴계 미국인 (Latino Americans). It's relatively a new term in this modern society, so Koreans were able to use "~계 ~인" to create a word Latino Americans.

White, Black and Yellow
A comment by Gloup is worth mentioning:
To my knowledge, 흑인 unambiguously refers to literally 'black persons", so not specifically African Americans. Now i think it hardly happens that somebody refers to oneself or somebody else (at least if the guy is present), as 흑인, 황인, or 백인. Hope a Korean mate will answer... ;-)
Great point. While Koreans use 흑인 and 백인 to refer others, they don't refer themselves as 황인. 황인 is a term that sprung up in response to 흑인 and 백인. Instead, Koreans use 동양인 (People in the East) to refer to Asians. Think about it: in English, we can say "White people" or "Black people" without offending others. But can you say "Yellow people" assuming that it will not offend anyone? 황인 is a good word to know, but with no practical usage.

Answer following questions:
  1. What ethnic group are you?
    Example: 동양사람, 백인, 흑인, 남미, etc.
  2. What's your or your parents' country of origin?
    Example: Korea, Russia, Polland, South Africa, Peru, Turkey, Singapore, etc.
Now using your answers, please introduce yourself. Please log in to leave your name or use your name if you want your writings reviewed. Here's an example from one my students (upper beginner).
제 이름은 XXX입니다. 저는 미국에서 태어났습니다. 3살때 프랑스로 이사했습니다. 그래서 지금은 미국계 프랑스인입니다. 그런데 어머니는 이집트 사람입니다. 그래서 저는 이집트계 프랑스인이기도 합니다. 저는 피부색이 브라운색입니다. 그래서 사람들이 저를 라틴 사람이라고 생각합니다.

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