Despite negative media images, there are many Blacks who are living life in ways that don’t compare to stereotypical media representations. Yet when many people (regardless of race) meet a Black who doesn’t fit stereotypes, their usual way of perceiving the world is challenged. In order to alleviate the resulting anxiety, these people often seek answers that allow them to maintain their beliefs. Others may interact with a Black in a way that conforms to their beliefs about Blacks despite evidence that refutes those beliefs.
Several Black friends and colleagues often tell me how perplexed and frustrated they have become by the countless times they have been asked personal questions that were not related to the conversation at hand. These questions did not seem to come from a place of genuine interest, but from an attempt by strangers and colleagues to find out why these Blacks were “different,” as they’ve all been referred to at some point in time.
One of the most outrageous examples occurred when someone I know was shopping and happened to ask a staff member for help locating an item. The staff member insisted my friend was from London (she is not) and asked her where she learned to speak “like that” – referring to my friend’s ability to speak standard English. What bothered my friend the most was that the staff member was Black and appeared to have bought into stereotypes of his own race.
Other friends have told me that they have been teased and called uppity or bourgeois; that people have literally stopped and stared long and hard when they have attended certain events; that they have been mistaken as holding positions far below their level of training – all because they choose not to live and breathe stereotypes, but nevertheless find themselves interacting with people who view Blacks as one-dimensional. And as my friends point out, the offenders in each of these cases never really seem to notice why their behavior is bothersome.
As these stories illustrate, people who commit faux pas when interacting with Blacks are often unaware of how some of their questions and behaviors might be perceived. Well now, there is no excuse. Here are some questions and behaviors that may be perceived as insensitive, along with the reasons you should avoid them when they are poorly timed and out of context.
QUESTIONS TO AVOID
1. Where did you learn to speak so well?
Implications: It is baffling when Blacks speak well and it takes extra effort for them to do so.
2. You’re not from (nearest inner city), are you?
Implications: Assumes that personal attributes can be attributed to where a Black was raised.
3. Where did you go to school?
Implications: Assumes that personal attributes can be accounted for by knowing which schools a Black attended.
4. What do your parents do?
Implications: Assumes that personal attributes can be accounted for by knowing what occupation (a proxy for socioeconomic status) a Black’s parent holds.
5. Did you see/hear (latest artistic endeavor that features a Black artist or is by a Black artist)?
Implications: Blacks keep up with everything by or about Blacks and don’t have eclectic tastes.
6. Are you all Black?
Implications: Any behaviors that don’t fit stereotypes must be attributed to a racial group other than Black.
BEHAVIORS TO AVOID
1. Mistaking Identity
Examples: Assuming that a Black in a luxury residential building is a maid, a Black shopping at Barneys is a sales clerk, or refusing to believe a Black employee is a doctor. Blacks aren’t always “the help.”
2. Displaying Shock
Examples: Staring, acting jittery, or dropping your jaw wide open when a Black speaks, enters a venue not typically associated with Blacks, or mentions belonging to a profession not typically associated with Blacks. Your display of shock indicates that you can’t fathom what you are hearing or seeing.
3. Overemphasizing Your Struggles
Examples: Starting random conversations about your plight growing up poor. Not all Blacks are struggling or had difficult childhoods. Just because someone is Black doesn’t mean he or she will relate to your hardships.
4. Speaking Slang
Examples: Introducing yourself to a Black by speaking slang when you don’t typically speak that way. Speaking in slang (when it is out of character for you) before you get to know how a Black speaks implies you believe Blacks won’t understand Standard English as well as slang.
5. Making Race-based Comparisons
Examples: Thinking that you have not achieved enough because a Black has surpassed you in some area of life or getting angry or feeling ashamed because you have to serve a Black customer. Many people assume that Blacks are only supposed to achieve but so much in life. These people can become envious when a Black has achieved more than they have.
6. Name Calling
Examples: Telling Blacks that they are “acting White” or calling them uppity, Uncle Tom, or Oreo. In many cases, the Blacks who have the most pride in their race are those who refuse to conform to stereotypes.
So now that you are aware of some of the things to avoid while interacting with Blacks, you may be wondering about more appropriate ways to engage. Often, it’s best to start by setting aside assumptions, showing genuine interest, respecting an individual’s boundaries, and asking personal questions at appropriate times.