Black people are habitually exposed to harmful discourse, even by those who by all other intents and purposes are anti-racist. Odessa Hamilton developed an informal online poll to hear from black people the kinds of comments they have heard first-hand from non-blacks. She captured 101 distinct comments and here presents the 50 most heinous or recurring ones. She says that, although painful on both sides, honest conversations are necessary.
We seldom speak of how segregation in Britain (geographically, but also apropos social structures, and a curriculum that emphasises Eurocentric ideals as normative) develops into cultural ignorance. An ignorance that can restrict authentic and respectful relationships between black and non-black individuals. It can create an embarrassment and a discomfort in interactions that may cause hurt, offense, or just an utter confusion over the legitimacy of the question, and whether it stems from a sincere place of unknowing or is fully intended as a racial slur.
The putative prevalence of this issue spurred me to create an informal 12-hour online poll to quantify and qualify the experiences of a small, yet diverse selection of black people in Britain. Contributors were male and female professionals, aged 22-60, middle or working class, of an African American, Caribbean, Latinx, or East, West or South African heritage. Eligible responses were first-hand; made by non-black individuals. Results included 101 unique entries; omitting those of an explicit nature. For brevity, we report the 50 most staggering.
While I initially chuckled at some of the shared experiences, my reaction ultimately reflected an internal discomfort at their sheer absurdity, and the demonstrated oblivion to true experiences of black people in Britain. Surprisingly, despite discernible racial undertones, many contributors added that much of what was said came from the most unexpected people; who, by all other intents and purposes, were educated, kind, and even actively anti-racist. There was also evidence of message assimilation, echoing content from major media outlets and scientific discourse about societal inequalities.
Overall, contributors shared a difficultly in addressing this manner of discourse composed and straight faced, since they appeared bizarrely innocent, or were intended comically, and yet were wildly strange and grossly ill-informed. This epitomises the common misconception that people have to be racist to say or do racist things. Further, offensive comments are hard to address without causing offense to the original offender, and so often, the gravity of the situation goes unnoticed, and inappropriate comments persist.
Although some tropes may resonate with other ethnic communities, this is a small step toward making clear what things are not appropriate to say to black people (even in satire). Irrespective of race, most will have the human capacity to appreciate the absurdity, and, to some degree, the farcicality of this terrain of insults that black people are forced to traverse. Some readers may be alarmed by what is yet to come, so take a deep breath, relax… then imagine living it daily!
1. You’re really pretty for a black girl.
2. Are you lips real?
3. You’re like black black!
4. Can I touch your hair? (OR they lunge in without asking).
5. You’re so lucky to have a natural tan.
6. I didn’t realise black people could grow real eyebrows.
7. You’re not black, you must be mixed with something, because you’re so light-skinned.
8. Any “coloured” descriptor (I’m not a box of crayons).
9. You speak so articulately.
10. You’re actually really smart.
11. Who taught you how to speak English?
12. You know so many words?
13. Wow, you got into Oxford, were you a diversity candidate?
14. Don’t research race; you’ll end your career before it’s even started.
15. Are you first in your family to be educated?
16. You don’t sound black AT ALL.
17. Teach me some slang.
18. We can’t attract or keep black employees, it’s like they don’t wanna work.
19. I’m SO sorry, I didn’t think you worked here (after calling security).
20. You should meet X, you’ll REALLY get on (both being black).
21. I love your hair straight; it looks so much more professional.
22. How do you make your money? (I work like everyone else).
23. We’ll address it, but just be careful not to play the ‘Race Card’ (after reporting a racial incident).
24. I like you! You’re surprisingly professional.
25. You could definitely pass as one of ‘us’.
26. You must be struggling through COVID (responding to inequality statistics).
27. Do you have a Mum AND a Dad?
28. Are you from Africa or Jamaica?
29. You’re a good mix (like a cockerpoo or labradoodle).
30. Do you snack on dry bones?
31. Where are you really from?
32. Can black people really be Muslim?
33. Do you eat with your hands at home?
34. Can we just use your initials?
35. That smells funny… What are you eating?
36. I was so shocked to see black Jews on TV.
37. (Siobhan, Saoirse and Leigh get to keep their names but…) Your name is too hard to pronounce, so I’m going to call you X (typically a Westernised adaptation).
38. Do you have any weed?
39. Why can’t black people swim?
40. Have you been to jail, even for a little while?
41. What colour is your blood?
42. How can I be racist, my X is black?
43. Yo my G/N*****! (or other attempts at Ebonics).
44. I’m sorry for my ancestors (when you just wanted a coffee).
45. Do have cars where you’re from?
46. What’s happening in Africa? (I’m not a newscaster)
47. I’ve always wondered what it would be like in black skin.
48. I think black people are really cool. (All black people, everywhere?).
49. I don’t see colour.
50. Why do “black Lives Matter” – don’t all lives matter? (Are all lives undervalued?)
Having made it through to the end – mostly unscathed – try to unravel those comments from egregiously racist slurs. It is uncomfortable and not straightforward. There is no expectation of an espousal of views, but rather an attunement to these common experiences, as we take preliminary steps toward honest and respectful dialogues that challenge such benighted messaging.
- This blog post represents the views of the author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash
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Well done for bringing this out of the “shadows”. Honest conversations are required between parties to banish this sort of ignorance.
Agreed! Such conversations require courage and maturity, with collective input across races to develop nuanced solutions. If we don’t raise these issues openly (yet sensitively) ignorance will prevail.
My only issue here is that a lot of these statements would be offensive to anyone without factoring in skin color. However some of these are blatently racist and yes I do understand that everyone should be treated like a normal human being. With that being said I think shoving your culture down peoples throats whilst constantly playing the victim card doesnt make anything better. So why constantly play it? Futhermore why not practice what you preach. Every race has a culture because everyone person in this world has heritage, backstory, upbringing. Prove me wrong. The liberal media has definently over sensitized the black american population into fearing the average heckler, jokester, or even law officer. If Derek Chauvin that killed george floyd had been black instead of white? Would the BLM movement really have took off the way it did? I have my doubts. In my opinion a true focus on real racism would apply to every race because while im not denying racism as a real thing its really really not soley targeted at black people. Before you say you never claimed it was just remember we have black history month, black lives matter, black only media, black netflix categories, black barber shops, ebonics etc. It is fine to be proud but notice how no other race begs for that kind of attention. Want equality then be about it just sayin.
There is a lot to unpack in this comment, so while I do not claim to have all the answers, I will attempt to address points in sequence. It is true that many of the statements would be offensive without factoring race, but the reality is that many feel more empowered to say such things to marginalised people than they do to others. We appear to agree that some comments have racial undertones, while others are more explicitly racist. You raise an important issue relating to “the victim card”. We, as a society, seldom flaunt “the victim card” or accuse self-victimisation for reasons other than race or domestic violence where victim shaming is prolific. By doing so we use our power to gaslight victims into believing that what they have experienced is void or negligible and, by inference, that it should be accepted or even assented. This is a Machiavellian tactic used by abusers to transpose guilt. One cannot be accused of “playing the victim card” if one is racially accosted and then proceeds to expose the abuse for what it is. If a bank is robbed, for instance, we do not shame the bank for revealing or reporting the robbery. To your point apropos culture kindly refer to earlier responses; indeed every race has a culture, and each of us should have the autonomy to operate within the confines of our respective culture. This article does not seek to deny that fact, nor does argue against any culture. This article in no way suggests that racism is solely targeted at black people, nor does it deny the very real experiences of other races. One can address one issue without renouncing an associated issue. I cannot speak to the liberal media in American, nor to the other hypotheticals that you raise, but I can say that racism is not an issue unique to America. To your final point; “Black History Month” arose as a way to remember important figures and events in the history of the African diaspora, because that information was traditionally concealed from Eurocentric history books. “Black Lives Matter” arose, not only from historical racism, stereotypes, and withheld opportunities, but from the brutal violence perpetuated against black people in the modern era. Black specific media arose out of an underrepresentation and libellous representation of black people in the media. While black barbershops and hairdressers arose from the rejection of black people in “white only” businesses. They subsequently became a place of safety and belonging where black people were able to connect, share, laugh, and learn. Thus, your noted reference to black focused areas arose out of rejection, domination, and opportunities denied – further authenticating the oppression that black people have historically faced. But this is why discussion is valuable.
Ashamedly I did have a little chuckle at some of the comments – and yep have heard most of them before! Thank you for spreading light on this very important topic.
Sometimes you have to laugh, so as not to cry… There were hundreds of responses, but most were iterations of common experiences. The humour comes from the sheer absurdity of comments made, so there is absolutely no shame in your laughter – in fact I would say it’s a natural response!
I got so upset. I didn’t know that some people ask such awkward questions. In my country people don’t care about color and it’s not common to say ” I’m black” or ” I’m white’. I got wonder after reading your article. I hope one day racism will disappear.
P.S. I live in an Islamic country.
That’s fascinating and is, by contrast, unusual in the Western world. There is a school of thought that we go through a cognitive process of sensemaking, from infancy thru adulthood, to navigate what is a highly complex world. This process requires cognitive chunking or grouping. Conceptually rich social categories have, therefore, been developed to aid this process. From an epidemiological perspective, it also allows us to reason about others’ likely thoughts, preferences, beliefs, behaviours, and interactions as inferred by group membership. Of course, social categorisation of this sort often has nefarious consequences, it fails to acknowledge that each group is not monolithic, and it often misses the common experiences between groups.
People don’t actually say this stuff
If only that were true… I hope for a day that such things are never said but, sadly, we are not there yet.
Oh yes they do! Many of those have been said to me over the years…
…said by people privilege enough not to hear these things!
I read this over my phone with with my black girlfriend(being white), and we both laughed at how absurd these were and how we can both imagine people saying these.
Irrespective of race, most will have the capacity for reason and empathy. Understanding the absurdity of these comments and engaging in interracial discussion is a demonstration of both. As we approach 2022, it is hard to believe that this level of ignorance still exists, but sadly it’s still out there. More worrying, is knowing that discourse underlies thought, so the comments made are credibly a reflection of what they think as individuals. Not only can this cause distress, and potentially dangerous situations, but less proximally, within occupational environments it can be a latent cause for withheld opportunity.
Reading this shows how much more work there is to be done. I have personally experienced 4,5,7 (I’m not light-skinned by any means), 9, 10, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 27 (they gasped when I said they were married too), 28, 31, 35, 38 (or sometimes the white stuff), 39, 42, 43 (always on nights out), 48 (often used as a segue to another racial comment), 49 and 50!
I have experienced most of the above more than once, and the experience continues as my life goes on. Unfortunately, this is a sad reality for many of us, day in and day out. I have friends from other ethnicities and races who share these same experiences too. Even though there has been some progression over the years, conversations must continue, and on a human level, we must do better!
Agreed. Those that have come before us have certainly paved the way for a better life, with unprecedented opportunities seen in the modern, Western world, but there remains an incredible amount of work left to do for us and future generations. We’ve gently grazed a place of tolerance, but equality remains elusive. It’s interesting that you mentioned nights out – I have heard it said many a time that people have to ‘brace themselves’ for work socials because latent values are typically exposed in those settings. Finally, albeit beyond the scope of the paper, it is interesting that we’re missing some of the nuances in intersectionality here. Although there was a general parity in experiences across the genders, there were some comments that were reported more by men (e.g., 17, 22, 38, 40, 43), whereas others were more prevalent experiences in women (e.g., 1, 2, 6, 21). Together they reflect deeply embedded gender stereotypes that intersect on race.
In South Africa where Black people are a political majority but a cultural minority the tendency is for white people to say “I dont see race” – including members of the largest opposition party which is majority white and calls itself “liberal and non-racial)
Regrettably, it has become ‘trendy’ for non-black antiracist people to express their alignment with equitable social ideals by declaring that they “do not see race/colour”. Despite good intentions, such senseless and hollow sentiments make clear an individual’s lack of understanding of the fundamental issues around race. Everyone [figuratively] wants to be seen. There are far more effective ways to demonstrate one’s affinity with the black community.
I’m White/with alot more based on my ancestry. I’ve heard them all. All my kids are Biracial. Filipino,Black, Puerto Rican. People have called me a N lover and much more. Had explain to my kids why ignorant people say these awful things. Thanks for the write well spoken.
It is a sad truth that children of the black community (and I suspect various other ethnic communities) need to have these hard conversations so very early in their lives. But having these difficult conversations with your children now will help to moderate the impact of negative racial experiences later. It is likely that much of their life experiences will be clouded by issues of race, but that is not the beginning, middle and end of their story. There is much in life that they will have to look forward to, and I suspect they will form a plethora of allies of all ‘shades’, many who will invariably be white. Articles such as these are important as they make it easier for people to understand what is and is not appropriate, when for many it may be unclear.
I found it sad that I can relate to nearly all of these. I’ve grown up with white people my entire life, and it’s saddening to see that kids today aren’t properly educated on these topics. Thank you for shedding light onto this topic.
It is sad indeed. The poll contributors were aged 22-60, across the two largest social stratums, which together underscore this as a widespread, generational issue. It should also be understood that eligible responses were made by non-black individuals, so they were not exclusively white. Regrettably, the problem is systemic and the ignorance is ubiquitous.
The “I’m sorry for my ancestors” one kind of cracked me up because that’s something that definitely has crossed my mind every once in a while, and tbh I’ve probably been that person once or twice…
It happens… We are all guilty of saying things that are perhaps well intentioned but miss the mark. This is precisely why these discussions are necessary; to let people know what is and is not appropriate. We enter a vulnerable space when we admit that we have said or done something wrong, particularly in the highly political climate that we have found ourselves in as a society. This level of transparency and commitment to avoid making the same mistakes takes courage.
Why on earth would you apologise for your ancestors, did your ancestors own slaves? You realise an incredibly small (and wealthy) minority of white people actually owned slaves? Your ancestors were likely serfs and treated as such by the wealthy. Slavery was practiced for centuries in Africa before the arrival of any white people, but I’m not sure I’ve seen black people apologising to other black people for their ancestors enslaving other Africans…
Having these conversations is essential and most people would recognise these comments towards black people are absurd. But a conversation is two way. I’d be interested to hear about the stereotypes and assumptions that black people have about white people too (regularly see this on social media). Or black assumptions around Asian people (owing to most hate crimes against Asian people in America being committed by Black Americans). Otherwise it isn’t a conversation, it’s just an echo chamber.
I am yet to be convinced that anyone can truly speak to depths of why people say what they do. I would argue that all the comments, including those not included in the article, are indicative of an ignorance that is persuasive. To your point, slavery was found in almost every ancient civilisation. Thus, slavery was not unique to black people, nor were all white people slave owners. This article suggests neither. Certainly a conversation is not a conversation if it is unidirectional. However, we have to be careful here not to muddy the waters. The intent of this article is to highlight the present day experiences of black people in Britain. It in no way purports to represent the experiences of all groups. Nor does it deny the true experiences of other groups. There are other pieces that have and will cover the experiences of other ethnic groups, including that of white people. Writing an article such as this in no way gives licence to black people to be derogative against other groups. But again, this is not the article focus. This article is solely to make clear what things are inappropriate to say to black people. It seems at a fundamental level that you agree that these are inappropriate. Entering into diatribe as to who is worse behaved is a directive that is, at its core, divisive. Part of the problem of having sensitive conversations, such as these, is that people feel attacked, so they get defensive and start to throw stones. To be clear, there is no attack. It is understood that as humans we are all fallible and none of us are above reproach. What we should be discussing goes beyond blame toward solutions, with the ultimate aim of reducing such benighted messaging. After all, these are real experiences that occur in social and professional settings by real people.
We were not just slaves, we were chattel slaves. When we had our own prosperous communities, they were destroyed by jealous white people and the government helped to destroy our Black Wallstreet.
We don’t have that kinda hatred within us towards anyone and are not committing crimes against Asians. White people are the ones committing crimes against Asians. Blacks are the ones being blamed. I guarantee you, it is not us.
Some of the things white folks have said to me were funny, shocking and make them look like they weren’t taught any manners at home.
I have shown them how to dance on beat by dancing to the music and not the lyrics. The look on their face when they learn how often we wash our hair. The look on my face when I saw them eat BBQ ribs wearing plastic gloves.
You are certainly right in that black people were chattel slaves, which highlights subtleties in historical racial oppression that persisted across too many generations. Although one has to be mindful here not to stoke the flames with blanket statements. People of all races have the capacity for hate. Likewise, people of all races have committed crime. In this respect, the divide should not be between the races, but between the good and bad among all groups. We should also have the capacity to lovingly and playfully embrace differences between cultures, without debasing said culture. Because the Eurocentric culture has been set at the norm, we sometimes forget that it is too a culture. Embedded within that culture is a unique way that guides how individuals live their daily lives – adding to the beauty of our culturally diverse world. Relating to cultural differences in the way in which we eat, for instance, a fork is used in Thailand to transfer food to a spoon only (you eat with the spoon). In Ethiopia it is a norm to be publicly fed by someone else by hand, and eating with one’s hands in commonplace in a plethora of other countries across the globe – from Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Sri Lanka, to Thailand. But in Chile, it is rude to eat anything at all (even fries) with your own hands. While Westerners have blended the two – from pizza to steak and everything in between. In this sense every culture has idiosyncrasies that should be embraced and celebrated.
I wouldn’t say these to anyone doesn’t have to be black for it to be rude
Certainly, but evidently this view is not one shared by all. Sometimes it stems from a lack of understanding. Other times its purposeful. Either way, change is required.
I still don’t fully understand the “50. Why do “black Lives Matter” – don’t all lives matter? (Are all lives undervalued?)” part. I get it – Black lives DO matter. But I still think all lives matter, and the fact that it is now taboo to say it sad. I’m Mexican American, and we are often overlooked altogether. On TV, in jobs, in societal circles. We are often looked upon as dumb, lazy, and criminal, and even undocumented. Yet, I went to college, I work a profession, and have a mortgage, and yes, I’m a legal citizen. And I came from the streets. I was 5 and living in a single room with my family across the street from a strip club. After that, I lived in a trailer with no one else around, no refrigerator or stove, and an outhouse for a toilet. I just chose to rise above the statistics and be ambitious. I was teased at school, beaten up, but I persisted. Still, for those who don’t know me, I have to deal with the stereotype, beginning from my name. And yes, our land was stolen from us, etc, etc, yada. Yet, I don’t hold anything against “white people”. I love white people. And for every jerk white person there is, there is another who is a decent person, some of whom who have made great strides in areas that we all benefit from, in science, social assistance, film/TV, engineering, etc. I love all people as long as they are decent human beings, and I despise people who are jerks, I don’t care who they are. I’m not into the “brown pride” thing. I have white friends, black friends, Asian friends, gay friends, lesbian, and I would rather have us ALL raise our hands together and shout “All Lives Matter!”. We each have our struggles. And being white does not entitle someone to easy living. Plenty of white people have it rough, too. I’ve known quite a few.
To your uncertainty, the phase “Black Lives Matter” does not create a dichotomy between black lives mattering and no other lives mattering. That would be divisive and fundamentally false. Perhaps this is where the confusion sets in. It also does not speak to entitlement in the traditional sense of economic liberty, pecuniary advantage, or living without hardship. “Black Lives Matter” is a phrase that speaks directly to the struggles that black people have faced with extreme experiences of systematic prejudice and injustice. It is many ways a plea for support, solidarity, and protection. In making assessments about the phrase “Black Lives Matter”, one should remember that it is first and foremost a slogan of a social movement. A movement that emerged, not only from historical racism, stereotypes, and withheld opportunities, but more specifically from the brutal violence perpetuated against black people in the modern era. Thus, saying all lives matter in and of itself is not a problem because, ultimately, all lives do matter. However, when people say “All Lives Matter” (or even “Blue Lives Matter”) in response to “Black Lives Matter”, it denies the reality that across the distribution of race, black lives continue to be the most undervalued, the most dehumanised, and the most brutalised of all races. Regrettably, the value of individuals in society is not equitable. For that reason, we as a society sadly need to be reminded that, in fact, black lives do matter as much as all others.
Be that as it may, no part of this disenfranchises any individual, irrespective of race, from their unique and valid struggles. One misses the point with such a suggestion, and derails the conversation. In addition, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” does not infer, by contrast, that all white people are antagonists. As a matter of fact it is widely acknowledged and celebrated that, throughout history, innumerable white people have been formidable allies to black and brown people alike. A social condition that has continued to present day. Thus, we have to be mindful here not to create unnecessary delineations between people. Certainly, as a caveat, this article writes about comments made by non-black individuals, so this is not an issue exclusive among white people.
My white doctor swung my hair from my face and asked is it even real. Additionally he told me that I did not need to come back and to follow up with my regular nose and throat specialist. Immediately I felt insulted and a need to let him know that my hair is real. But I am embarrassed that I felt that I needed to. Can you give me your thoughts on the matter. Is this considered racial comment? Should I seek legal assistance?
Doctors are human, thus fallible like the rest of us. We all have the potential to say and do things that are inappropriate. In direct response to your questions, this article does not litigate or speak to crime and punishment, nor is it a forum for advice. Should you require counsel relating to your experience, you will have to explore other avenues unfortunately.
I agree with all of those advices you give here Odessa 100% agree with you here.
That is very kind of you to say, thank you. Though, as a proviso, I must add that I do not claim to have all the answers, nor do I claim to exclusively hold the high ground on thought and morality. The reality is that life tends to operate in the grey and, while not always, it is possible for two opposing views to be equally grounded in truth and righteousness. Thus, we should be open to hearing views that contradict our own. At worse, they add weight to our original position. At best they allow us to see a wider view of the world. It need not always be a zero-sum game.
As an Asian, i have received a lot of these comments too. It is really disturbing how rude and uneducated people can be in these situations, I’m glad this article exists.
It is true that some of the tropes directed at black people may indeed resonate with other ethnic communities, though there are, invariably, nuances to the prejudice directed at any marginalised group. This is unfortunate. It also, sadly, obfuscates solutions.
I am so, so tired of the subject of racism and everyone’s disbelief of it! No matter what the complaints or the hurt or exclusive occurrences, someone’s definition of racism is going to exist. The minority race (regardless of color or lack thereof) in any geographical area is going to feel discriminated against. IE: The United States, the blacks are probably up against numbers like 90 to 10. With the 10 being the black population. In any society, the lesser number group is going to feel treated unfairly. Until someone can cure human nature, this is going to be a fact that all have to live with! Sometimes it’s in the headlines and sometimes it’s not. But it will always be there in any society with unequal population numbers!
As true as the ubiquity of prejudice may be, there will always be some who deny it and some who choose to ignore it. That does not equate to others choosing not to stand up against it. In direct response your reference to the state of affairs in the United States, albeit imperfect, progress has been made. Thernstrom and Thernstrom (1998) highlight that in 1940, 60% of employed black women worked as domestic servants. Over 20 years ago that number was down to 2.2%, and 60% held white collar jobs. In 1958, 44% of white Americans said that they would move if a black family became their neighbour. That figure reduced to 1%. In 1964, the great Civil Rights Act was passed. At that time only 18% of white people said they had a friend who was black. That number rose to 86% 30 years later. Such progress can be attributed to those who have fought tirelessly against it. It may sometimes feel like “the never-ending story” or “an up-hill battle”, but few good things come easy, and as has been evidenced here, progress has been made, albeit slow. While efforts for good are often frustrated, one cannot merely accept that which is unjust in the hope that it will fix itself.
I agree with almost all of the things you shouldn’t say, but I don’t agree with what was said about all lives matter. Yes thee are more than one race that’s undervalued, I agree that black lives matter, but I also believe all lives matter as well.
Thank you for your comment. Kindly refer to the earlier response that speaks to this confusion in detail: “…the phase “Black Lives Matter” does not create a dichotomy between black lives mattering and no other lives mattering”.
I have witnessed so much change in race relations over my 94 years. My children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and my great-great-grandchildren have and will all have very different experiences with race. The state of affairs between the races has much improved since I was a child but clearly there is still so far to go. Things that were once acceptable are no longer so. We need to move on and change with the times. Mutual respect, peace, and unity is the way forward. Those things are everlasting. For the coming generations I say: “peaceful life = happy life”. Throughout my life my parents would always remind me to be good to people because you too benefit from that goodness.
I can’t recall ever saying any of the 50 items. It is shocking that these have been used in conversation and continue today. I would however share that I believe many white people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they shy away from dialoging with black people. The one item I was surprised to learn was commenting on the shade of one’s skin was offensive. Within the white community this is common. We talk about white peoples skin color, eye color, hair color, hair straightness etc. Many years ago when I was a young manager I was accused of racist behavior toward a black engineer just out of school. The investigation by the black HR manger found I treated him no different than the non-black engineers. I was coached and improved the way I supervised all my engineers and I can thank that young black engineer for making me a better leader. I believe however, I was a flawed young manager, not a racist manager. If you are white, I encourage you to fight the fear of saying the wrong thing in order to have meaningful conversations with people of color while avoiding obviously offensive language. We can only achieve what I believe the vast majority of us desire is when we talk to and learn more about each other.
First, may I say that as a society we have to be mindful how we label people and their behaviour. Calling someone racist (or their deed racist) must be warranted. Otherwise, it undermines true instances of racism. It is, however, remarkably difficult to know whether the intent behind the behaviour is racist or not, and so we have this ongoing conundrum between the races. That as it may, I can certainly see how the current political climate has caused a fear of saying the wrong thing. This adds to the importance of having these difficult conversations. Alas, we are all guilty of saying things that, upon reflection, we realise that we should not have. Welcome to the human condition! Ultimately, there has to be a sensitivity on both sides to the difficulty in adjustment that will inevitably be experienced as individual groups transition to more equitable positions in society. This requires a level of vulnerability and transparency and (dare I say it) maturity. If one is afraid of saying the wrong thing, simply sharing that anxiety will ultimately put you in good stead with the other person. Important to note, also, that ‘avoidance’ is a natural, albeit unnecessary, self-preservation strategy. People do the same thing when interacting with people with cancer, those in a wheelchair, or those who are bereaved, for example. Finally, in the spirit of progress, it is important, too, that we take lessons from past experiences for our own personal grown and the betterment of others… as you say “[it made you] a better leader”.
Omg. Thank you for bringing out this weird things people say or try to do because of my skin. I am well educated and I still get those little sayings that people do to make themselves feel comfortable or thing that what they say make you feel ok. But the truth is I want to scream. However I just look and educate.
Though race on the intersect of socioeconomic deprivation certainly does present its additional challenges, an interesting school of thought is that people can “earn” themselves out of racism; through education, occupation, wealth, power, and influence. This is simply not the case – ask Oprah! However, the upward social mobility of historically marginalised groups will invariably afford greater power to influence diversity, inclusion, and equality narratives. Keep talking. Keep educating.
Dear Odessa, I appreciate your considered responses to the comments below this article. Something has been bothering me for a long time, and I believe you are the best person to share my experience with and from whom I can gain real insight. I am a white woman- now 50 years old. I grew up somewhat poor in a white suburb. I moved to the east coast and lived in DC and NYC. I am doing financially ok now. I wish to share an interaction I had around fifteen-twenty years ago that left me feeling embarrassed and confused and find out what I should have done/said/thought differently. I attended a community play in NYC where all the audience and actors where white/Jewish/Eastern European. I was seated. I witnessed a black couple enter. There was an awkward moment when the older white man assumed they were part of the production. The black man seemed confused but polite. The white man seemed embarrassed. They got past it and the couple sat next to me. We were about the same age. I started chatting with the guy. We really hit it off and were having a great conversation about movies and science fiction that we both love. We got on the topic of the movie Aliens. My complaint was that it’s so hard to see what’s happening in the film because… and here’s where it fell apart— I said, “the whole movie is bbll— um dark!” I was unfortunately too aware that I was talking to a black person and I had witnessed that awkward interaction when they came in. I genuinely liked this guy! I wanted him to like me, too. So, what did I do? I stuck my foot in my mouth. In the instant where he saw me stop myself in the middle of the word “black” and switch it out for “dark” as a descriptor of a movie set, his eyes darted away. His mood shifted. He cut me out. All the natural back and forth ended. Our connection was lost. Why did I stop myself from saying “black”? Because I was trying not to offend. Because black is often seen as pejorative. Because white liberals are constantly policing each other to use the right speak. I don’t know… for all kinds of reasons, I guess. I tried to keep the banter going. Thank heaven the play started so we were able to redirect our attention away from the awkwardness. After the play, we shared our goodbyes. “So great chatting with you!” But I knew this man would never be my friend. This was about fifteen years ago. I spoke of it candidly with two friends of mine. One black guy my age and a white guy a little older. They both laughed at me. I never really understood how the whole thing fell apart, but it has broken my heart.
Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing this experience. This speaks to a discomfort in knowing what to say, conceivably, because of the evolving political climate. With any societal change comes an adjustment period – for everyone – a renewed understanding of what was once acceptable is no longer. This applies not only to race but to a number of other protected categories, which can develop into hesitation and uncertainty (then avoidance). This behavioural response is understandable under these conditions because this evolving dynamic can be difficult to navigate. Ultimately, we all have to accept that mistakes will be made. Equally, we should afford everyone (perhaps even the worse amongst us) the opportunity to learn from mistakes, do a 180-degree turn, and move on toward more egalitarian ideals. The specific mistake that you speak of certainly warrants self-forgiveness and the expectation to move on without it burdening your conscious; merely seeing it as an experience that you will strive not to repeat will suffice. Then to ‘intent’, which is important; we should bear in mind that others cannot see our intent, nor our generosity of spirit, nor our anti-racist principles. They sense and judge intent through our words and actions. But this can be an impossibly challenging cognitive process. Particularly so when responding to surreptitious racism. More challenging still, when an individual’s environmental milieu is fundamentally race baited; with negative racial experiences being the norm. Under such conditions, misattributing someone’s innocent mistake for a racial aggression can occur. In these instances, forgiveness should be extended both ways. Feasibly, this is where [discerning] vulnerability and transparency contribute to healthy relations between the races.
Thank you so much, Odessa, for the kindness, brilliance, and elegance of your replies.