How Not to Converse With Black People in Social Situations
First of all, I would like to say that I am not an elected spokesperson, nor do I presume to speak for all Black people. The following recommendations are based upon my personal experiences interacting in non-homogenous social settings, with varying degrees of diversity, running the gamut from black tie professional to laid back and totally casual.
I am not certain where the line should be drawn in terms of today’s politically correct world of social etiquette. However, on numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed how seemingly innocuous comments have alienated attendees at a gathering. In some cases the situation escalated into harsh words, hurt feelings and damaged relationships. Based upon the assumption that the perpetrator unwittingly trampled upon someone’s sensibilities, I offer ten (10) scenarios that may lead to unwanted and undesired friction in dealing with African Americans in a group setting. Some scenarios may be universal, applying to anyone. Others, depending upon your rapport with the person, may be rather commonplace and totally harmless. In short, the individuals present and their existing relationship are tangible factors determining how a comment may be perceived. In the absence of a close connection, adhering to these guidelines may help you avoid unnecessary emotional stress:
He/She is very well spoken – Chris Rock has a classic bit where he comments how enamored the news media was with Colin Powell’s diction and command of the English language. The unstated assumption is that Colin Powell represents an exception to what our normal expectation would be. Were he not a minority, there would be no need to make this distinction.
He/She doesn’t sound Black – This falls into the same category of the “Colin Powell” example.
What do you mean you don’t dance (or sing, play basketball etc.)? – More assumptions (enough said).
Why do Black people (your type, your kind, they etc.)………? - In this case, someone is assuming that being of similar ethnic background classifies the person as a behavioral expert related to their culture. Furthermore, there are a myriad of factors not connected to race that can influence behavior.
What is your opinion regarding……..? – This question can start a brush fire when related to a hot button issue (i.e. affirmative action) or some current events story involving Black people. Without guessing the motivation that would prompt someone to ask the opinion of the “Black” person in the room, I will say that it will do nothing to increase the minority’s comfort level in a group setting.
Did you hear the one about……..? – Political correctness aside, jokes about race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. can easily be told at anyone’s expense, when they are not present. Unless you are a paid entertainer, you run the risk of alienating people when you tell these types of jokes in a group setting.
I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. – You are at a gathering and a Black person tells an anecdotal story of perceived racial injustice. Unless there is an obvious omission or flaw in the person’s reasoning, interrogating the individual in an attempt to expose them as being misinformed or overly sensitive is bound to cause a degree of discomfort, possibly turning the conversation into a confrontation. You will need to weigh the value of truth seeking in this scenario.
My grandparents came to this country with nothing. – This statement is usually thrown out to emphasize that determination and effort lead to success. While true, it totally discounts the existence of racism as being an obstacle to success in our society. This is a good way to unintentionally light someone’s fuse.
I don’t see color. – Any variation of this statement is virtually saying that you are without prejudice. Psychologically speaking, this is highly improbable. We all have prejudices. How we manage them determines who we are. Denying the obvious will only raise concerns.
Some of my best friends are Black (or any variation there of). – Depending upon the context, this statement can be perceived as someone professing that they are without prejudice or in possession of some special degree of empathy toward Black people. When thrown out as a defense to previous behavior, it rings hollow.
These scenarios are in no specific order. I welcome any and all feedback (i.e. additions, deletions, comments, etc.). You are welcome to disagree; but if you find yourself at a social gathering one day and the mood quickly darkens based upon one of the above comments, you cannot say you haven’t been warned, or had no idea.
Hopefully, we can generate some meaningful dialogue as a precursor to this evening’s on-line panel discussion being hosted by Faith Paulsen.