It used to be that most white people would start a discussion with me, a woman
of African descent, by referring to someone or something they thought they knew
about another person of African descent, or about my culture. For example, in the 1980s folks would often mention someone they saw on television (or heard about), like Bill Cosby.
Those who thought of themselves as hip might lead off with a musical reference -- "that Stevie Wonder is talented," "Lena Horne sure looks good for her age." And, of course, sports were also popular. People would feel free to initiate these discussions, but accepting for their limited knowledge of these folks from the media, their lives were not racially or ethnically diverse.
These conversations were always awkward for me and never satisfying. For years, I have denied this, but now that white people are a certified minority, I have devised a list of five subject areas white people should never bring up in conversation with people of color.
In no particular order, they are:
1. Color, Race and/or Ethnicity -- White people, like people of color, are obsessed with it. (By the way, the term "people of color" is not literal. People of color come in various shades, tones, and hues.) We are aware of this. We don't enjoy you putting your arm next to ours and remarking how you are darker than we are. The prejudice linked to being a person of color is not solely generated by the color of the skin. There are definitely some links, such as how police stop disproportionate numbers of people of color while driving or shopping. But many people of color are discriminated against even though they are not initially seen as a person of color. Most white people would not accept discrimination associated with being a person of color as a fair price to pay for being "exotic" and darker.
2. Hair -- Another area considered exotic, and a reason for envy. Plus some white people must unconsciously believe that if you rub or touch our hair/head, you will have good luck. You can certainly admire my hair, but if you saw someone of your own race with a nice hair cut, you might compliment or ask where they got it done, but never would you touch it. I also get white people arguing with me about how I groom my hair, particularly after they have seen a documentary on the topic. If the terms "nappy," "kitchen," or even "Jew fro" are not from your particular culture, believe me, it is inappropriate and often insulting to approach someone from a different race or ethnicity and use these terms in reference to their hair.
3. Clothing --- A huge quagmire. Again, compliment the person just as you would if you saw a polo shirt in a color you like that was particularly flattering on the person. If you choose to wear clothing that is indigenous to another culture, you should not approach someone from that culture and initiate a conversation about how you now "look like them." Remember the expression "a sheep in wolf's clothing." Clothing does not define your race or ethnicity. Nor should you question whether or not someone is wearing clothing associated with her culture.
4. Age -- Many people will note that it is difficult to determine the age of people of color, in particular women. Many a comedian of color has made sexist and ageist jokes about white women. The aging process and its effects on looks are not attributes of race and ethnicity, but of a multitude of factors including genetics, luck and individual maintenance.
5. Class -- Many a white person mistakenly assumes that all people of color came from a lower socio-economic background and live in their neighborhoods only because they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. The days of that Booker T. Washington mentality are over. The statement is ridiculous on its face. The reality is that race and/or ethnicity does not solely define us. But when we are initially approached in this way, the walls that divide us continue to grow. Stereotypes dehumanize people so we relate to one another as caricatures instead of human beings.
There are many ways to approach folk who are different without initially and awkwardly commenting on those differences. Differences have no intrinsic value. They are neither good nor bad, they just are. So if you wonder about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in your life, could it be you are inadvertently dehumanizing and/or exoticizing folk rather than reaching out on a more basic human level?
As my late grandmother Lizzie used to say, the weather is always a safe topic of conversation and if that goes well, you can move on to another subject area.