Dumb Things to Say to Black People

Dumb Things to Say to Black People

“Oh stewardess, I speak jive.”  It was a hilarious line from the 1980 movie Airplane spoken by Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) of Leave It to Beaver fame.  She intervened to translate for a flight attendant that could not understand two black passengers.   It was funny, but the premise that black people spoke differently and needed interpreters was insulting to some blacks.  Many whites inadvertently insult or offend blacks when attempting to compliment or comment on race matters.  Even if a comment is spoken innocently and without malice, it can still be a dumb thing to say to or about black people.

The backhanded “articulate” compliment is one example of a dumb thing to say to or about a black person.  “You speak well” is not a compliment.  When Vice President Joe Biden was a senator, he found himself at the center of a racial controversy involving then Senator Barack Obama.  Regarding Obama’s candidacy for president, Biden said, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”  Many blacks were offended by most of Biden’s comments, however let’s concentrate on the articulate part.    It permeates an attitude that the black norm is lacking in proper grammar or diction.  To compliment one person, the entire black race should not be insulted because someone’s paradigm of blacks is through stereotypical movie roles, rappers or news coverage in impoverished areas where a bystander inarticulately describes an altercation.

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“Blacks are naturally athletic” is also a dumb thing to say due to the racial undercurrent. The notion that, by virtue of skin color, someone is physically more capable is nonsense and insulting.  In 1988 sportscaster Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder was fired when he basically said blacks are better athletes.  If blacks are indeed better athletes, then what does it imply about their other capabilities?  What is their presumed weakness?  Intelligence, creativity, ingenuity?  What strength do whites possess?  Asians?  Hispanics?  Does it follow that the “gifted” area possessed by one race is not adequately represented in another race?  It implies the physical arena is the “gifted” area in which blacks can excel. This led to blacks not being considered for the “thinking” positions in sports like quarterback, coach or manager for quite a period of time.  Thankfully, things have changed, but this “naturally athletic” model has led to the slippery slope of racism and discrimination.

One of the more volatile dumb things a white person can say is “There are blacks, and there are “N” words.”  This statement, or any statement using the “N” word, is inappropriate regardless of audience (unless you are comedian Chris Rock on tour in front of a predominately black audience).  Given the racial history of America, the word is too emotionally and racially loaded to attempt usage.  Well meaning whites normally make this faux pas when they know and feel a kinship with blacks.  Singer songwriter John Mayer was attempting to show his comfort and credibility with the hip hop community when he uttered the “N” word in an interview.  It was not long before he discovered he had erred and said a very dumb thing.

Unthinking and ill-conceived statements can alienate friends or incite arguments.  Don’t make assumptions or generalize about an entire group of people because if you do, you may find you’ve just said a dumb thing.  And for the record, no Mrs. Cleaver, not all blacks speak or understand jive.

Sources:
“Biden’s Description of Obama Draws Scrutiny.” Xuan Thai and Ted Barrett, CNN, February 9, 2007.
“CBS Dismisses Snyder.” Michael Goodwin, New York Times, January 17, 1988.
John Mayer – Rob Tannenbaum, Playboy, March 2010.

Do you have any to add?  Comments are always welcome.

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