Monday, May 18, 2009

What do I call "them"?

I have had many well meaning white people ask me how African-Americans prefer to be addressed. To which I respond, “depends on the person. You should ask them.”

While this is true, I’m not authorized to speak for anyone else, that answer ignores what the questioner really wanted to know. In the name of being helpful here are a few easy tips.

Start with African-American. This is the most PC, is generally safe, and where you should start if you have any doubts. The term can be seen as a bit too formal or official, or someone may just not like the term, but it is not offensive.
If someone wants to be called something else, they will let you know.

My wife describes herself as “black”. There is nothing wrong with a white person saying the word black. I once watched an inexperienced white person try to describe another person who was black. We all knew the one being described was black and I chuckled as the describer used every description he could think of, except the color of his skin, to describe him. Once this awkward profile was given I asked the guy being described if he was black. “Yup”, he replied. “You cool with that?” I asked. “Of course,” was his reply. The original describer looked at me in horror as I asked these questions. He was obviously not comfortable even mentioning race in mixed company. He is not alone.

Now between black and African-American, the latter is safer. It’s an easy rule, now relax.

But don’t relax so much that you turn off your brain and do something regrettable.
Remember black is an adjective, not a noun. My wife is a black woman, not a black. She is a person not a color and if you call her something that describes her as less than a person don’t expect to be friends. I’m sure you wish to be considered human as well.

Just because someone else says it doesn’t mean you can too.

Your Mom tried to teach you this about all sorts of things while you were young. Where most of us go wrong in bringing this early life lesson to racial names is we tend to think of the “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff would you want to do that too?” speech. Jumping off cliffs is stupid and no one should do it. What we should recall is the “Just because I do (A) doesn’t mean you can too. You are too (young, small, whatever)”.
In other words, just because you hear a black person use a certain “N” word, does not make it O.K. for you. EVER!
You can have your opinion on if black people should say that word, but keep it to yourself. A white person telling a black person their opinion on black people using the “N” word would be like me telling some strange woman what underwear she should wear; its none of my business, has nothing to do with me, and is just generally inappropriate.

Now I know most of you black people don’t need my help in addressing white people but let me add my two cents.
Stop using displays of stereotypical behavior as proof of whiteness and stating it out loud in mixed company. As in, “look at him dance, you know he’s white.”

The word white is not synonymous with: nerd, slow, smart, rich, rhythmically challenged, lame, uptight, lack of jumping ability, racist, or even Republican. Using it as such, even when being funny, only confuses white people and deepens the wedge between our groups.

Just realize that no matter how different you think “they” are, you are talking to a person. Treat them like one.


Anonymous said...


brohammas said...

Thanks anon, thats one view of the argument. Once again, it is not my argument to have.

uglyblackjohn said...

You white people are always so thoughtful when it comes to racial issues.

nathalia said...

That is an amazing drawing. Love it. And that was a very pragmatic, useful post. Thank you!

Corbie said...

I liked this post also - very direct and constructive for both sides.

Anonymous said...

That's what I'm talking about.

Siditty said...

As a black person I say you can all me anything you want, just don't use racial slurs, or the term negro. Negro seems so old fashioned. I just call myself black.

John Barclay said...

Hummm I'm a person.. a human... really? My wife once... just once... called me an animal... so where does that fit in to this whole deal? :)

brohammas said...

Your wife is wrong. You are not an animal but a BEAST.
My wife often calls me "genius", usually after I lock the keys in the car.

Maybe what wives call us should not be a point of reference?

Anonymous said...

I had a white lady at work ask me about some movie with Sidney Poitier. I did not know what movie she was talking about. Because I had not ever seen the movie she told me I did not have a right to call myself a Negro because the movie was so good. It was an Interracial love story. Apparently her nephew is engaged to a black girl and the movie reminds her of their relationship.

I did not get offended, mostly because she was so sincere about it. She looked as though the word Negro was still being used.Plus whenever I work with her she is always very sweet and nice to talk to. Now she lives in a rural part of Illinois. I want to say Southern Illinois. From what I hear people down there are still very racist and the Klan is still down there. I am still not ready to accept being called the other N word. I doubt I ever will. Black is okay too. But plain old American will do as well.