We all need guides through culture. If you’re headed to Italy, people will tell you to be careful about the words “ano” and “anno,” because they definitely don’t mean the same thing. And for many white Americans, black America can seem like an enigma.
So if you’re having a little trouble navigating racial lines, here are some helpful tips. (Most of these tips apply to strangers, because everybody has different rules with their friends.)
I went to school for English literature, and I’ve loved to read and write ever since I was a kid, so it’s not surprising to me that I have a large vocabulary. It is, however, surprising to some.
If you wish to compliment a black person on their speech, just say, “I really like your vocabulary” and then (and this is the important bit) STOP. No one will take offense to being complimented on their words, but they will take offense to you going over the top about how “well they speak” like it’s the biggest deal in the world.
If you like a black person’s hair, just tell them. DO NOT just reach out and touch it. Actually, don’t even ask if you can. It may seem nice, and they’ll probably let you, but like a gay crush on a straight guy, it’s probably going to end up in discomfort for all.
If you’re a woman, sure, go ahead and ask, “How do you get it to stay like that?” and other hair maintenance questions. People like to feel appreciated, so they’re most likely going to be fine with your questions.
Despite what you may have seen on Pornhub, black men, in aggregate, don’t have any larger business than anybody else. You might think to yourself: “But it’s, like, a good stereotype, right?” Nope.
It’s a lie, stemming from the times that white people justified harsher control on black men because they were supposedly more virile and lustful creatures, ready to rape white women into oblivion (see: Rosewood)
Because of this painful history and the myths that have hurt people for a long time, it is not in your best interest to ask your new work acquaintance the size of her boyfriend’s manhood, or to ask him.
This one is exclusively here for the benefit of white people everywhere, because I don’t even talk to my black friends about “nigger” that much. Like, it’s not usually a relevant topic of discussion. It never ceases to arouse the curiosity of white folk, though.
There have been many, many, many discussions about the word “nigger” and here’s the consensus: If you’re white, don’t say it. It’s really simple. Really, really simple.
“But what if it’s in a song? What if we’re reading Huckleberry Finn? What if a kid is dying of cancer and his one wish is the say ‘nigger’ before he dies?”
To be clear, there is significant diversity of thought in the black community about the appropriateness of the word, and whether it lends itself to a power of repurposing, or whether it reinforces destructive power structures, but you’re not a part of that conversation.
It’s a word that has long been used by the white community in every capacity possible to demean black people, so it’s in your best interest to avoid it. Black people shouldn’t have to give you a laundry list of why they don’t want to hear you use it, and your overwhelming desire to might need to be examined, don’t you think?
If you happen to be the milkiest and pastiest guy from Minnesota, love deer hunting and off-roading, you definitely do not need to attempt to “relate” to me when greeting me. Greeting everyone else in the office with “Hello” and then awkwardly slapping me up me with “What up, my BROTHA?!” is unnecessary and often uncomfortable. I promise I will understand you if you just give me a handshake and say, “Hi, my name is Greg.”
Going out of your way not to say “black”
I’m black. Sure, you can use African-American if you want to, whatever makes you feel most comfortable. But if I’m standing at the counter and you’re trying to tell an employee who to help, I’ve never been offended by someone saying, “The black guy in the pink shirt.”
There’s nothing shameful about being black, so why would I be upset when you call me that? Now….if you say, “The nigger over there,” we might have a problem. See point four.
All of these social faux pas amount to, as the black people might describe it, “Doin’ too much.” A lot of them come from reasonably good intentions, but suffer from god-awful execution. By avoiding them, you’ll work to build bonds of unity rather than accidentally turning people off from getting to know you before they start.
Do you think there was anything left off this list? What are your favorite racial social mishaps? Be sure to leave a comment!