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The first time I went off to school, I began to learn an awful lot about interracial communications. Over time I have picked up on several things which may help others to avoid putting their foot in their mouths when actually meaning well. So…if you are white, have not lived around many black people or do not want to look like a complete idiot when sincerely trying to be friendly, please take a glance at the following list of hopefully helpful tips:
1. When introducing yourself to a new black person, please be yourself. Trying to use slang you would not typically use or copy mannerisms you have seen on TV will at least get you laughed at and at worse offend the person you are talking to. We know you are not black. And we do not expect you to act black (whatever that actually means) in order to be our friend. Trying to do so can cause us to perceive you as fake and condescending.
2. It is not necessary for you to mention other black people you have known in order to have a conversation. So talking about the black person in your 3rd grade class, some guy you had a fling with or that someone has actually been to your house is not really much of an icebreaker. We do not have giant black people meetings where we keep a check list of who is and is not cool which we pass on throughout the race. Yes that sounds ridiculous, but when you do these things it seems like you believe it.
3. If you would not normally ask a black person about politics, do not ask about Obama. I was never asked a political question in my life, but in 2007 you would have thought I had two PhD’s in political science with the number of people who, overtly or so-called covertly, began asking me about Obama. Despite how inconspicuous you attempt to be, we always suspect you are just trying to see if we voted for him and if we did so because he is black.
4. Most black folks will not get offended if you ask them a question about black people or culture. However, it would be prudent to take a few seconds and make sure you are asking the right question. For example, rather than asking “why do black people _______?” you could ask “is _____ about black people actually true?” There is a difference in asking if a particular stereotype is “true” and basically reinforcing one in the form of a question. Personally, I would prefer someone ask, even if not phrased too well, than for them to continue in ignorance because they are too scared.
5. Do not talk about certain topics because you think black people like them. I cannot count the number of people who would work how they listen to rap or even smoked weed into a conversation. They were often shocked to learn I did neither, but even if I had it would not have granted them some kind of extra black points with me. So please do not believe Tyler Perry or fried chicken will be a great bridge to friendship. All you are actually saying is “I believe these stereotypes about you to be true.” It would be the same as a guy trying to pick up women by saying he likes chick flicks and wishes he could give birth.
6. Do not ask for a black person’s opinion on a matter so you can get the “black perspective.” If we were actually that united in our stance on things, we would probably be much further along. Just like no one white person can speak for most or all white people, no black person can do so for black people. And even if some misguided soul claims to do so, please do not actually believe them.
7. Leave the N-word alone. Yes many rappers and some black people may use it, but there are a large percentage of us who do not and are offended when other blacks use it as well. We do not care if you had a black friend who let you use the N-word around them back home. Once again, we do not have a “black people” meeting where we give clearances to white people other black people will respect.
8. If you are working or rooming with a black person and have a concern about something, try actually talking to them about it. Having the first time they hear about your concern come out in an ambushed meeting with a boss or RA will certainly set relations back a mile or two. And the “I felt intimidated by them” cop out is particularly infuriating to those who have never given any reason to suggest they are hostile or belligerent.
9. Please do not compare us to celebrities. Many of us are just fine with being us. But if you really cannot fight the temptation, at least select a flattering comparison. To be clear, make sure it is someone people consider both visually and attitudinally pleasing. No matter how great of a rapper he is, no one feels particularly delighted about being told they look like Notorious B.I.G.
10. It is okay to say we are black; usually. Most of us have no problem with using our skin color to identify us in a room full of non-black people or because another non-black person shares our name. But, here is the moment of offense. When you tell a story about the altercation you had with someone and mention they are black, it is not about physical identification or stating relevant details. Someone’s complexion will almost never add depth to the story or help to flush out the plot (unless it took place in a tanning salon). It is done to subtly attribute the person’s disagreeable actions to the group that trait connects them to. So do not freak out about us getting offended about calling us black. Ignoring that observation would be the same as thinking it offensive to identify me as male.
The point of this is not to say non-blacks need to cater to black people when interacting. Blacks who have not been around many people of other cultures certainly carry their share of assumptions and stereotypes as well (see here). However, being that I am black I can only speak from my own experience.
By Corey Dorsey