When Compliments Are Racist

When Compliments Are Racist

Note to My White Self…

I did it again.

I offered one of those back handed, racist compliments that expose how much work I still have to do as a recovering racist. Even worse, I did it during a panel discussion at a cross-racial dialogue conference where I allegedly represented a “woke” white person. Here is what happened.

In describing a recent conversation with a black woman, I said, “I was talking with a very articulate black woman…”

Sigh.  I should know better.  I’ve read and even written about this peculiar racist habit.  I’ve explained it to many white people who don’t get it. Describing a black person as “articulate” implies this attribute is unusual and requires comment. Such compliments subtly support the racist trope that black people aren’t articulate.  Fortunately, someone almost immediately called me out on my use of the qualifier “articulate” and I acknowledged and apologized for my racist rhetoric.

I suppose I’ve made some progress. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what I did wrong.  Five years ago, I would have been defensive and objected to any critique.  Today, I’m slightly embarrassed and thankful that someone called me out.  I am also due for a refresher on when the qualifiers and compliments of white people are racist.

Rule #1

Unless a reference to the skin color of a person is relevant to the story, a white person referring to someone as black is usually racist. 

In the situation above, describing the woman as black was necessary. My story was about her experience as a black woman dealing with racism.  The story wouldn’t have made any sense unless people understood she was black.

However, in most situations, noting the race of someone is unnecessary and often motivated by unconscious racist bias.  For example, telling my wife that a black salesman knocked on our door is racist. Informing her of the salesman’s skin color only makes sense if I think she needs to know that specific information.  Though I didn’t do this consciously, I may have been warning her that black men – whom I’ve been indoctrinated to associate with danger and violence – were in our neighborhood.

Often, in my experience, the use of the descriptor “black” by white people is completely irrelevant to the story.  The real motive in describing the person as black is to affirm some racial stereotype.  If you want to read more about this dynamic, I’ve discussed this rule at length in the post – “I Say Racist Things.

Rule #2

Unless the adjective used to describe a black person is pertinent to the story, the adjective used by a white person probably reflects their unconscious prejudice and is not actually complimentary.

Many compliments of black people by white people share a common theme – the black person being complimented is an exception to the rule.  Suggesting a black person is “articulate, hardworking, intelligent, studious, respectful, competent, beautiful, level headed, etc.” is often said with the unstated “for a black person.”  White people compliment the black person because they have had one of their racist stereotypes challenged.  Unfortunately, rather than examining their own prejudice, the white person’s compliment actually serves as a means of reinforcing the racist stereotype – “My opinion of black people is still correct.  You are the exception.”

Additionally, the backhanded compliment allows the white person to think well of themselves.  Why did I mention that the black woman in my story was articulate?  Was my motive to compliment her or to exhibit my graciousness?  This is especially common in progressive circles where white people seek to demonstrate their solidarity with people of color.  In 2007, Joe Biden once described Barack Obama as “articulate, bright, clean and a nice-looking guy.”  While Biden intended his remarks to be complimentary, they were rightly condemned as racist and he later apologized.  While all four qualifiers are suspicious, no one would ever compliment a white politician for being clean.

In my racist assertion, describing the black woman as articulate was completely unnecessary.  Whether I thought her articulate was irrelevant to the story.  She did not need my accolades as a preface.  Her worth was not enhanced by my approval.  If I had simply related her words, the power of her statement would have been obvious.

Rule #3

Describe the behaviors and impact of black people’s actions rather than offering qualifiers and adjectives.

Here is what that black woman said.  She told of how when she arrived in Africa for the very first time, a weight she’d never been aware of dropped from her shoulders. She was suddenly in a place where everyone around her was black, where she didn’t have to fear what the next white person she encountered might say or do.  She spoke of how incredibly freeing that had been, of how her health improved.  After two weeks of liberation, she arrived at the airport to go home.  She described how that burden of living in a white world fell heavily on her shoulders the moment she was greeted by the white flight attendant.

The proper response to such a story is empathy and personal reflection. Thankfully, on the day I heard that story, I did not add to her burden by telling her “how articulate she was.”

Black people don’t need our compliments.  They aren’t waiting with bated breath to see if the white person is going to approve of them.  They know how often those compliments are really insults.  Indeed, the giving of compliments is often paternalistic, implying that black people’s value is directly connected with how much they please the white people around them.  White people need to carefully check this impulse to re-center attention on our alleged superiority and graciousness.

It is usually about here in any discussion of backhanded racist compliments that some white person will say, “Well, if I’m going to have my every word scrutinized, I just won’t say anything.”  Which brings me to my final rule.

Rule #4

Since racism is so deeply embedded in white behavior, it would benefit white people to talk less and listen more.

Not saying anything is often the right response.

Appreciation and gratitude are better than compliments.  When your black waitress provides great service, remarking on her politeness isn’t appropriate.  Leaving a good tip is sufficient.  When a black man does excellent work, complimenting his “competence” is only slightly less insulting than calling him “a good boy.”  A simple “great work” will do.  A raise would be even better.  When a person of color speaks in a way that makes you think or feel differently, there is no need to compliment them for “being articulate.”  Simply tell them that their words made you see the world differently.


Reminders For Recovering Racists

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Note to my white self…

Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America.  You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests.  Good for you.  However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle.  First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself.  Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…

It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias.  If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious.  This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.”  This implies you are aware of your every motive.  This is very unlikely.  When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist.  Thanks for making me aware.”   This is more honest and reflective.  It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.

When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are.  Could they be wrong?  Certainly.  However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias.  Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.

Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias.  It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous.  You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage.  When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior.  If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain.  The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.

For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg.  Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche.  For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character.  You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself.  Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.

In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions.  Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias.  They don’t expect you to be unbiased.  They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness.  Surprise them.

Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop.  If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it.  Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist.  Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias.  All that has changed is your awareness.  Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior.  Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks.  I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.

In the battle against systemic racism, always remember  – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

All Lives Don’t Matter Equally

Note to my white self…

When other white people say “all lives matter,” don’t be confused. You’ve written about white code.  You’ve talked about those terms white people use to voice racist sentiments without sounding racist.   “All lives matter” – when voiced in response to “black lives matter” – is white code.  It is not a defense of human rights.

Certainly, all lives should matter. The lives of every person, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their ethnicity, their religious faith or their sexual orientation, should matter equally. This is a noble and principled assertion, especially in a world where religious, political and economic forces don’t always affirm the universal worth of every individual.  If you’re discussing and defending human rights, stating that all lives matter is a good starting point.

Unfortunately, when the starting point is someone else saying “black lives matter,” saying “all lives matter” does not come off as noble and principled. You sound racist.  Your defense of all lives suggests a lack of sensitivity and understanding, some unacknowledged racism or perhaps both.  In responding with “all lives matter,” you imply the person saying “black lives matter” is really saying “black lives matter more” and this is simply ridiculous.

“Black lives matter” developed as a response to the lack of concern on the part of police departments, the media and the political system to situations where black people have been the victims of police brutality and even murder. It was never the assertion that “black lives matter more” than other lives. It was a desperate cry of those who were experiencing a world where “black lives matter less.”  “Black lives matter” is another way of saying “All lives don’t seem to matter equally.”

When you respond with “all lives matter,” it suggests a disconnect on your part. Maybe you don’t want to admit you live in a world where such horrible inequities exist.  Maybe you’re afraid the only way black lives can matter more is if white lives matter a little less.  Maybe you see the world as place where all lives matter at birth, but are thereafter judged worthy by other standards.  Maybe when you say “all lives matter” you mean all lives matter, but some lives matter more.  Maybe you think black people are making that claim because you look at the world that way.

Let’s be clear. If you really believe all lives matter, the proper response to “black lives matter” is simply one word – “Yes.”  Anything else is suspect.

And don’t get me started about “blue lives matter.” If claiming “all lives matter” is insensitive, then claiming “blue lives matter” is downright ugly.  It implies that when a black person and a police officer encounter one another, the life of the police officer matters more than that of the black person.  This is what people of color hear when you defend the actions of the police and disparage the character of the victim.  They know that after nearly every shooting, the white media, politicians and police departments spend tremendous energy is portraying the black person as criminal or questionable, as a life with less worth.

Sadly, people of color agree that blue lives matter more than black lives. It is their experience.  It is precisely why they’ve been arguing “black lives matter.” Indeed, they know official police policy and judicial pronouncements have consistently defended the right of a police officer to kill a black person when they feel threatened.  Notice that they have the right to do so when they ”feel” threatened.  Whether they were actually threatened is almost irrelevant.  Protecting blue lives matters more than protecting black ones.

So stop saying “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.” It’s insensitive, ugly and racist.  It is not how mature people respond to expressions of pain and tragedy.

Imagine you discover you have lung cancer. You share this terrible news with your friends and family.  They respond by reminding you that “all cancers matter.”  What would you think?  How would you feel if they responded by listing all of your behaviors in the past that might have contributed to your cancer?  What if they suggested you didn’t deserve to be treated fairly by the medical system?  How angry would that make you?

If you share the news of your cancer with someone, you only want one thing – their understanding and support. If someone says “black lives matter, they are asking for the same understanding and support.  In a world where not all lives matter equally, that seems a reasonable request.

I Say Racist Things

I Say Racist Things

Note to my white self…

Sometimes you say racist things.

I’m glad you avoid blatantly racist language, but don’t be too proud of that. Most people in our society don’t use the more obvious racial slurs.  Most people know spouting racial stereotypes is ugly.  Political correctness, for all its detractors, does create a more civil and polite culture.  I’m glad you try to be civil and polite.  Just remember that being politically correct doesn’t eliminate racism.  It simply forces racism into different linguistic forms.

For example, the other day when a salesman came to your house, you said to your wife, “A black man tried to sell us a security system today.” Think about it.  Why did you mention the color of his skin?  It was completely irrelevant.  You didn’t have a conversation with him  about race.  He asked if you were interesting in a security system and you said no.  Describing him as black is racist.

I know. It seems harmless enough.  However, your need to differentiate yourself and all other white people from that salesman demonstrates a racial bias.  He wasn’t just another man.  He was a black man.  That you needed to mention that suggests – at the very least – a level of discomfort with black people.  More disturbing, it may reveal deeper racial bias.  Perhaps you were subtly warning your wife that black men were knocking on doors in your white neighborhood and that she should be careful.  I know you don’t want to think that, but most racism is deeply embedded and often unconscious.

Think about the things you say. Remember at the convenience store, when you were standing behind a woman with three children who was buying lottery scratch offs.  You said, “I saw this Latino woman with three children buying scratch offs.”  Being critical of poor people who buy scratch offs – while judgmental – is defensible.  Identifying her racial or ethnic background is not.  In so doing, you’re implying ALL Latino people neglect their children.  Adding her identity is irrelevant unless you have a racially bias opinion.

Let’s stop here and think about it. If the woman had been white, you wouldn’t have said, “I saw this white woman with three children buying scratch offs.”  You wouldn’t have implied her whiteness had anything to do with her negligence of her children.  Indeed, you seldom identify any white person with that identifier.  White is the norm.  You would never say “A white man tried to sell us a security system today.”  Whiteness is irrelevant to understanding the salesman’s behavior.  This is not the case with the black man or Latino woman.  When you identify them, you imply the color of their skin is essential to understanding their behavior.  That is racist.

Even when you use someone’s racial identity in a positive context it can be racist. Remember when you came home and said to your wife, “My waitress today was such a nice black woman.”  That seems innocent enough.  You’re saying something nice.  But why is her blackness relevant?  The only explanation for adding the color of her skin is if you still harbor some negative opinions of black people.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re implying a black woman being nice is noteworthy.  Ironically, your compliment isn’t really a compliment.  It is racist.

I know all of this is a painful to hear and admit. You want to think you’re free of racial bias.  You don’t want to see or hear your own racial prejudice.  I also know you sincerely want to be less racist.  So here’s my challenge for you…

Stop using identifiers for people of color unless it is relevant. Sometimes it can be.  For example, saying, “My black friend pointed out my racist behavior” is appropriate.  In this instance, their blackness is relevant and important.  Their being black gives their criticism more validity.  In most other situations, identifying the color or ethnicity of someone is unnecessary.  So stop.

Or, if this seems too hard, start using identifiers for everyone. Talk about your white wife, your white friend, the white cashier and the white person you met on the street.  If you still think identifying the color of someone’s skin is necessary, then at least be equitable about it.  Point out everyone’s race.  Ironically, doing so might help you see how seldom you interact with people of color.

Regardless, next time you catch yourself identifying someone by their color or ethnicity, stop and think, “Was that really necessary?”

What did my words imply about them?

What do my words imply about me?

Anti-Racist Resolutions

Anti-Racist Resolutions

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is disappointing that these words of Dr. King in the 1960s still ring so true in 2017. Too many of us who are white don’t seem all that interested in learning about white privilege, racism or about people of color.  We seem to thrive on our racial ignorance, convinced we know all we need to know, satisfied with our prejudices, content in our stereotypes and resistant to anything that might call them into question.  I say “we” because I am increasingly aware of how little I know about racism.

With this in mind, my wife, Jennifer, and I have decided to make some significant changes in our behavior in 2017. These changes are intended to allow our behavior around racism catch up with our rhetoric.  Like many, we tend to talk a better game than we live.  We want to change that.  We want our daughter to see a consistency between our words and actions.

We have resolved to the do the following…

  1. Subscribe to the Safety Pin Box, a subscription service designed by Black Lives Matter advocates to educate white people on racism and white privilege as well as fund grassroots efforts to address systemic racism.
  2. Make one significant donation each month to organizations that are directly or indirectly supporting the lives and dreams of people of color. Our first target was the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis. Planned Parenthood, the Southern Law Policy Center and ACLU are three of our next recipients.
  3. Purposely direct our economic transactions toward businesses, restaurants, movies, services and companies owned or with people of color in significant management roles.
  4. Inversely, avoid any company (or its owner) that seems opposed to efforts to create economic or social equality.
  5. Read only books written by people of color during 2017. We recently created a list of the top books written by people of color and were embarrassed by how few we’d actually read. We’re beginning with “The Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Buying their books rather than using the library is another way to support black writers.
  6. Intentionally sit down with a person of color each month for a substantial conversation about their lives and their views.
  7. Attend events, protests, and educational activities organized and lead by people of color.
  8. Join groups and organizations led by people of color and become active learners.
  9. Actively oppose any actions by the Trump administrations that target minority or impoverished people.

That’s a tall task. We’ve got a lot to learn. Fortunately, I am already discovering there are a lot of people of color who are willing to be our teachers.  While none of these things will change the world, we hope they change us.

I Am Racist

I Am Racist

Note to my white self…

You are racist.

I know that’s hard to hear. You were taught that racism is wrong, that you shouldn’t treat anyone differently because of the color of their skin.  You took that to heart and tried to always respect others, regardless of their race.   You never used the n word, or told racist jokes, or laughed when others did.  You tried to avoid stereotypes, to treat people as individuals and not as a group.  You befriended people of color and even loved some of them.  You taught all of that to your own children, convinced it would make the world a better place.

So I understand why it’s hard to acknowledge you’re something you’ve spent your whole life trying not to be. Racist is what you called other white people, the white people who used the n word, who told the jokes or laughed at them, who promoted the stereotypes, who ignored or were rude to people of color and who passed on their prejudice to their children.  Racists are bad people and you’re not a bad person.

You’re not a bad person.

That’s why admitting you’re racist is so hard, especially when that accusation comes from people of color, who tell you that your definition of racism was wrong, that it left out some behaviors, ignored some attitudes and accepted some injustices. They point out all the privileges you possess at a white person and you get defensive.  All your life you’ve tried to do the right thing and all of the sudden you’re being told it wasn’t enough, that you’re not all that different from the white people you despised.  That’s painful to hear precisely because you are a good person.  You don’t want to be thrown into the same category as them.

But what do you do?  How do you respond to people of color?

You can’t ignore or be rude to them. That’s what racists do.  You can’t pretend you understand racism better than them.  You know how silly that sounds. You can’t deny your good fortune in being born into white privilege.  You know you wouldn’t trade places with them.

So what do you do?

Fortunately, I know you. You’re a good person.  I know that when you’ve had time to really think about it, to really listen to them and to stop being defensive, you’ll do the right thing.  You’ll accept that racism, even when unintentional or unconscious, is still racism.  You’ll reluctantly acknowledge all those things you never even knew you were doing. You’ll admit how unfair the world can still be. You’ll expand your definition of racism to include whatever still hurts, diminishes and oppresses people of color.  You’ll stop doing those things.  You’ll get back to work at making the world a better place.

I have confidence in you.

You’ll do all of that because you’ve always believed racism was wrong.