The Many Ways Well-Intentioned White People Are Still Low-Key Racist
“You don't sound black."
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Navigating between different social circles can be hard, especially when they're made up of folks from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. And even more so when you're the only person of color in a room and the white woman you've heard greet everyone before you with a pleasant and simple "Hi" or "Hello" drops a "Yo, whattup girrrrrl!?" on you. Like, why?
Other examples include but are in no way limited to: being asked by a white person what you think of a new rap album before you've disclosed whether or not you even listen to rap, awkward small talk about Black Panther, and being told you have a "good skin tone" because you aren't "too dark." Not throwing out random slang to a black person you don't know or greeting them with a "cool handshake" you just invented seems pretty basic, but you'd be surprised. It happens all the time. Nearly every black person I know has a similar story.
Not all who do these racist things are racist, necessarily. They're trying to relate or find common ground, not quite realizing how their attempts to do so come across. The way to avoid having these attempts fall flat is simply by adapting an attitude that puts people first instead of color or culture. I asked black friends and relatives to tell me about the times even well-intentioned white people have made a mess of an interaction so readers may learn from their examples.
“I worked a job that sometimes had me greet people at the door. My supervisor once asked me why I wasn’t dancing. I responded that I typically don’t. He said, ‘I thought all black people danced?’ Aren’t you all born with rhythm?’" - George, 28
"One time at work when my manager went out of town, my company sent over a temporary manager in her place. The replacement manager and I were working together and as soon as she saw me she said, ‘Hey girl, how ya doin'?’ I told her I was good. But as the day went on, I noticed she wasn’t speaking in the same way to white employees. When she spoke to me and the one other black employee, she’d use slang and speak in a more 'hip' way. I asked her why and she literally said:‘Wha chu mean, girlfriend?'" - Elise, 22
“I worked with a Trump supporter and once, after a black boy was shot and killed by the police, she asked me 'Why do blacks run from the police and then get mad when they're killed? I hope you've learned that lesson because I would hate for you to die. Who would help me close deals?'" - Tia, 24
“When I was younger, I made friends with a short, funny, blonde girl in my class. Every day after school, we’d chat on the phone while watching Maury. One day, she made a joke about the black people on the show. I reminded her that I, too, was black, and she pointed out that even though I have black skin, I wasn’t really black because I didn’t listen to rap music or dress like the guests on the show or in music videos on MTV.” - Benjamin, 26
“While on the road during lacrosse season, my team often entertained ourselves with karaoke. On one trip, my coach was looking for someone to take over the mic and randomly called on me. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was something like, 'Amari, why don’t you rap for us. We all know how you like that rap music.' At the time, I didn’t listen to rap music much and everyone on the team—all of them white, I should add—knew my karaoke song of choice was 'Build Me Up Buttercup.'" - Amari, 23
“I walked into work with a new hair color and a fresh twist out and I overheard a co-worker say 'OMG do you think it’s a weave or a wig? I’m going to touch it.'" - Tia, 24
"I grew up in a super white town, so naturally, my close friends were white. When I went to college and finally got to be around more black people, one of my white friends from back home said 'Oh, you must be happy to have new friends that are black. You guys can talk about your hair and stuff.'" - Felicia, 22
"I went to a majority white school. One time, I walked with a group of my white friends by the table where most of the black people sat. Someone cracked a joke and all the guys at the table laughed. After we walked by, one of my white friends asked why black people sound like monkeys when they laugh." - Jelani, 25
"While at an internship, one of the girls I work with recorded a clip of me and wanted to use it on her Snapchat story. She asked me to repeat what I had said. So I said it the same way and she recorded it again. She asked me to say it again. 'You know, this kind of way,' she said as she rolled her neck and put on what she believed to be black attitude. I told her I don’t talk like that, and turned to continue my work. She pleaded and I ended up doing it. It was my first time in an environment like this. I didn’t want to screw it up; I wanted to make friends and learn. I wanted to fit in because I already didn’t." - Niama, 26
"A janitor who was cleaning my classroom once said 'Don’t take this the wrong way, but black people age really well.' My response was a confused thank you. He followed that by saying 'I’m convinced you guys age so well because you have to lotion all the time.' I explained to him that dry skin is a people problem, not a black problem." - Jasmine, 29
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