Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How NOT to win friends and Influence Black People

A few of my white readers have expressed to me the fact that they want to have conversations about race in America and they want to have them with African Americans. The problem, they say, is that they don’t know how to begin and they are afraid of unintentionally offending people. We all know that discussions about race can become quite passionate, and some people can be intimidated or discouraged by that passion. It is with these readers in mind that today’s entry was written. I offer you a list of things (besides the n-word) white people ought not to say to black people when trying to have a logical and sane conversation:

• “You speak so well,” “You speak so well for a black person” or “You’re really articulate.”

This may, in fact seem like a compliment, but trust me—it is not one. Expressing surprise or finding novelty in the fact that a black person speaks properly implies that it is not the norm and that you actually expect that all or most black people sound like the cast of Flavor of Love or some really bad movie that panders to black audiences, such as Soul Plane. It’s like a black person assuming that all white people sound like Larry the Cable Guy or Roseanne Barr. The key difference here is that there are countless television shows and movies that depict articulate and intelligent white people. Upstanding, educated and well-spoken black people depicted—not so much. Watch this clip from the acclaimed film Hollywood Shuffle to learn more.

• “You are really good looking/pretty for a black guy/gal” or “You’re cute for a dark-skinned guy/gal.”

I shouldn’t even have to address this, but alas, I do. Would you tell a white woman she is “pretty for an Italian girl” or a white guy that he is “cute for a Jewish guy?” No, you would not (and if you would you have “no home training” as we say). Would you eat dinner at someone’s house and say “this is really good for vomit?” It’s akin to saying, “You are really smart for a retard!” It implies a lowered expectation or standard for ethnic beauty and surprise or recalcitrance at the idea of a black person being attractive or beautiful.

• “Are you from the projects?” or “When did you move out of the ‘hood?”

Let’s face it, most of the black people with whom you interact are people you know from church, school, work or some sort of social or professional group. So why is it so hard to believe that their lifestyle is quite similar to yours? Do you assume all white people come from trailer parks? Yes, some black people live or have lived in low-income housing—but so have and do plenty of white people. The same goes for receiving food stamps and welfare checks too. Here is a little something on "The Black Middle Class" for your reading enjoyment. And just so you know: Rapper Lupe Fiasco's mother is a gourmet chef, his dad, an engineer; Rapper/Actor Will Smith's mother was a school teacher, dad was an engineer; Kanye West's mother was Chair of the English Department at Chicago State University and his father was a photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And those are just a few black middle class rappers. Dr. Mary Patillo is an authority on the Black Middle Class. Watch this clip (or get one of her books) if you'd like more information.

• “I bet you’re a really good dancer!” or “You must be a good rapper!”

Ok, so the stereotype is that black people are good dancers and I’ll admit that many of us live up to that stereotype. However, not all of us do (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and LaToya Jackson come to mind). Wow, think about that for a minute…Michael Jackson’s sister LaToya can’t dance! As much talent as that family has—and she sings like a wounded hyena and dances like a drunken skunk. I couldn't resist sharing this gem with you...

Yes, there are many incredible black entertainers who can or could cut a rug—MJ, James Brown, Janet Jackson, Usher, Sammy Davis, Jr., etc. There are or were plenty of impressive black rappers such as Biggie, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Tupac, etc. Please keep in mind though, that for every Jay-Z there are millions of this guy:

The entertainment business was built on the backs of great black entertainers. Ok—but the porno industry was built on the backs of plenty of skinny, freaky white women; so according to this logic, should I assume that all white women like depraved and deviant sex? Should I approach them and remark, “You must be really good at oral sex?” Probably not.

There are more no-no’s, but we’ll cover those some other time. I want to give you some time to let the first lesson sink in and marinate so as not to discourage or overload you. Have you ever thought or said any of these things? If you did say them, I’d be interested to know how you survived the beatdown to tell of it. Just kidding!


  1. When you gonna do something provocative, girl?

  2. Great post as usual Rachel. I'm feeling you on the LaToya thing -LMBO. The unfortunate thing is, this conversation could and should be had with some black folks too, who I've also heard slinging some of the same ignorant statements at each other.