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April 2, 2011 / JV

More on “don’t do that #247”

I was inspired by an exchange with a commenter on my recent don’t do that post to elaborate on some of the things I’m alluding to in the post and maybe explain why I was bothered by what happened.

About that incident in particular

Quick summary of don’t do that #247: I’m trying on glasses with a friend. A salesperson who is not helping me and has not spoken to me at all prior says to me from across the room: Have you tried the ones with the white frames? If I had dark skin those are the ones I would wear.

Immediate thoughts I have in this situation:

1. Why are you talking to me? You are not helping me shop.
2. Why do you find it necessary to allude to my skin color? From across the room? It’s like you’re saying, “Hey, I just noticed you were black and wanted to let you know I noticed.”
3. Why “dark”?
4. Why are you talking to me?

I’ve had experiences similar to the one mentioned above – in which I was buying something and a comment was made about my appearance which could be taken as racial – but the ones that didn’t bother me were different in the following ways:

1. The comment that was made was actually specific to me. It exhibited some real observation, thought, and purpose.
2. The person who was talking to me was actually assisting me. This is really important. Please don’t pretend to be making a sincere suggestion to me (especially if it includes a statement about skin color) from across the room.
3. The comment was not made in the odd format of, essentially, “If i were black…” This is just weird and annoying in any context. Just say, “I think those might look good on you”. Look how easy that was? You could even say “I think that color would go well with your skin tone”.. maaaaybe. But not from across the room.

About incidents like this in general

The thing is, [white] people do things like this all the time. They find ways to mention race in otherwise non-racialized conversations. Sometimes it’s jokingly, other times it’s completely sincere and casual. But my thing is, if I just met you and we’re talking about foosbol, what’s your purpose in pointing out race? Just… why? Here are a few real examples of racialized comments I’ve experienced (all of the speakers are white):

1. I’m talking to a friend and a person I literally just met about moving to another city. I mention Atlanta and the person says “Atlanta? Why? It’s so boring. I mean.. the black community there is really good. Like, there are a lot of black people there, like young black people and black people with a lot of money, so…”
2. I’m finishing up dinner with some friends. One of them mentions getting some dessert. Another says, “Why get dessert we have [insert my name here]?” (Get it? *nudge nudge**vomit*)
3. I’m at a play with a couple of friends. One of them starts talking about this girl he’s dating. He says, “I really like her. You know I like.. earthy girls. You know what I mean ‘earthy’… not ‘earthy’ like [insert my name here] but…” (Get it?!!)

About incidents like this, cont.

My point is not that race has no place in conversations. I have many friends and acquaintances of different races with whom race has been a topic, or has come up in conversation. But there are ways to do this. Typically, it is riskier to do this if you are talking to a person for the first time. It is not safe to assume that because I am black, I want your opinion on the “black community” in any given city, or your thoughts on how many black people there are in your new neighborhood.

There is a way of randomly inserting race into a conversation that I think is largely symptomatic of this whole post-race idea and hipster culture. Sometimes it’s like a white person’s way of saying “See! Look! I’ve totally accepted that black people exist.” But often, it makes me question how often they are around people who are different from them. These kinds of random, not-adding-anything-to-the-conversation comments remind me of weirdly borderline offensive humor that tries to pass itself off as ironic. Joking about something, or throwing it into conversation, doesn’t demonstrate your understanding of it. On the contrary, it can demonstrate a lack of self-education or experience in diverse settings, and it can make people uncomfortable. And it can be really, really annoying.

So in general, before you make a remark about “dark skin” or “blacks” or “chocolate” please just take a second to think about where you are coming from. And if I may, I’ll share some things I try to consider when I’m feeling unsure about saying something:

To whom am I speaking?

How well do I know this person and how well do they know me?

Am I making assumptions about how they identify, or their interests?

What am I hoping to achieve with my comment?

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