Earlier today, the Huffington Post published a piece by Melody Moezzi called “Ten Things White People Need to Quit Saying.” Succinct and to the point, the article lists ten oft-repeated phrases by well-meaning (or at least not ill-intentioned) white people who don’t mean to be racist.
My friend posted this article on his timeline a few hours ago. As I read through the list, I cringed a few times because I have definitely participated in some of the behavior that Moezzi mentions – never with the intention of being racist or harmful, but out of ignorance and/or boneheadedness.
Let’s go through them one by one.
1. “Do not use the word ‘exotic’ to refer to humans who don’t look like you. We are not fruit, and it is not a compliment.”
I don’t think I’ve ever used this word to describe a person, but I did read it or hear it used in this context without seeing it as a problem. The first time I really thought about the meaning behind the word “exotic” was college, where one of my roommates related an anecdote about herself or someone she knew being described as “exotic.” She wasn’t very happy with the usage.
That’s when it first occurred to me that a word typically used to describe wild plants or animals could maybe be a bit insulting to people who have often been treated as less than human by people in power.
I did include “exotic” in my novel Fanged, where the protagonist describes one of his friends as “exotic-looking” and mentions that the friend is offended by that word “for some reason.” I intended for that passage to show the protagonist’s ignorance. Whether I succeeded in that goal or not is up to the reader to decide.
2. Do not use the word “ethnic” as though it were a distinct race or nationality.
I’m guilty of this one much more recently, probably a little over a year ago. I mentioned to someone that I wanted to get a variety of “ethnic” actors when we cast future projects for Second Star NYC.
What I really meant to say was that we wanted diverse casting. The intention was good, but I fumbled on the execution. That’s a lesson in connotation vs. denotation.
3. “Do not ask people where they’re from more than once.”
I learned this lesson back in 2008 when I started teaching in a middle school in Canarsie. The sixth grade social studies teacher on my floor had a strong accent that sounded Caribbean, but I couldn’t quite place it. During one conversation, I asked her, “Where are you from?” She curtly responded, “Brooklyn.”
That one word was all it took for me to understand exactly what was wrong with that question, and I never asked it again. Thankfully, she didn’t hold my mistake against me.
4. Avoid statements like, “Wouldn’t it be great to live during [insert any era during which the person you’re talking to couldn’t vote or own property]?”
I don’t understand how any woman asks this question. Almost any era where people of color weren’t allowed to vote or own property were the same eras where white women also had considerably fewer privileges than they do today.
You admire early 1960s fashion? Then go to a vintage store. We don’t need to travel back to that time. Unless it’s to stop the JFK assassination. (Why JFK in particular? Why isn’t 4/4/68 a Hulu series? I need to look into this.)
5. Resist the urge to ever say, “I have a lot of [fill in the blank with the racial, religious or ethnic group with which you are least familiar] friends.”
I’ve never used the “I have a lot of [fill in the blank] friends” as an excuse for a racist joke or express a racist attitude.
But I have done the “ironic racist” bit, which is just as bad (or a little worse, or not quite as bad, depending on your point of view). I’d say a racist joke and then say, “I’m doing it ironically. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t really mean it. I’m making fun of the stereotype!”
I didn’t do that all the time, and I haven’t done that for maybe ten years, but I did it enough to make me cringe at that past behavior.
6. Remember that reverse racism isn’t a thing. Racism is about the abuse of power and privilege.
One day during my senior year of high school, I passed two girls of color in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. As soon as I was out of their line of vision, one of them exclaimed, “DAMN, that girl could glow in the dark, she’s so white!” The other girl said, “She can hear you!”
I related this anecdote every chance I could. Some people were appalled at the “racism” of these girls, making fun of me because I was white. Others didn’t bring race into it, but commented that it wasn’t very nice of them.
Me? I cracked up laughing.
See, I am very white. I’m not just culturally white. I am almost translucent.
A lot of people teased me for being very pale. Most of the teasing came from boys, most of whom were also white. They called me Casper, they called me Snow White, they called me Flan (one of the more creative ones, I admit). They teased me about anything and everything. My whiteness was just one easy target to attack.
I didn’t conflate those girls’ reactions with the boys’ teasing. The first girl was just so shocked at my whiteness that she made a loud exclamation about it, and the other girl was appalled that I might have heard it, just struck me as so funny.
It never occurred to me to consider their behavior racist. How could they be racist against me if I’m white?
7. Unless you are one of “those people” making fun of other people calling you “those people,” then never say “those people.”
This reminds me of an episode of Community when Britta uses the “you people” mock outrage on Shirley, then gleefully says that she’s so glad she got to use the “you people” line, and Shirley is not impressed.
I have no deeper commentary on that. I miss Community.
8. Think before asking people to explain an entire race, religion, civilization or geographic region to you simply because they happen to identify with that background.
This is something that I think most of us have trouble navigating. We meet someone new from a different background. We don’t want to define this new person by his or her background, but our backgrounds have a profound influence on who we are, and what better way is there to get to know someone than by asking questions and showing interest?
If you can navigate this balance, please let me know.
9. Remember, we are not all from any one place. Pretending we are just makes you look delusional.
I totally relate to this! People should STOP asking me if I know this person they know from New Jersey because I used to live in New Jersey! It’s exactly the same as assuming all black people are from the same country!
(Note: this is absolutely nothing like assuming all black people are from the same country.)
10. Unless you have achromatopsia, never say “I don’t see color.”
But what if I’m a dog, huh? WHAT IF I’M A DOG?
In conclusion (or, why did you write this?)
I’m a white person who considers herself anti-racist, but that doesn’t mean I never make mistakes, and my past mistakes can’t all be chalked up to childhood or even adolescent ignorance.
I hope to lead by example to the other not-ill-intentioned white people who think they’ve never done anything racist.
Odds are, you have. Odds are, you probably will again. And if you care about being anti-racist, you should reflect on those mistakes and think about how you can do better next time.