While I've never been especially fond of political correctness for its own sake, I've encountered enough well-meaning white people embarrassing themselves to know that a brief tutorial can't hurt. For those who insist that they could never say anything racist because they are not racists, I present a quick reminder: Just because you didn't intend for something to sound racist, doesn't mean it isn't, and just because you don't think you're a racist, doesn't mean you're not. I refer you to the Washington Redskins and every idiot who insists that Native Americans should be "honored" to be so warmly insulted. Newsflash: Determining whether this team's name is racist is not up to anyone but Native Americans. If you are not Native American, your opinion on the issue is at best irrelevant. I know it's hard for some to accept, but white people don't get to determine what is and isn't racist.
As an American who reflects an increasingly common and decidedly ambiguous shade of brown, I have been questioned and "complimented" in some of the strangest ways--rarely by people intending to sound racist, but often by people who end up sounding super racist. So I present the following list as a sort of public service. While it is far from exhaustive, it represents a fair sampling of the kinds of comments that often make those of us with more melanin cringe--or just never contact you after you give us your business cards. So here goes, in no particular order:
- Do not use the word "exotic" to refer to humans who do not look like you. We are not fruit, and it is not a compliment. The longer you insist on assuring us that it is a compliment, the stupider you look. Just give it up.
- Do not use the word "ethnic" as though it were a distinct race or nationality.
- Do not ask people where they are from more than once. Trust them the first time. No need for "Where are you really from?" or "Where are your parents from?"
- 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]?"
- 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."
- Remember that reverse racism isn't a thing. Racism is about the abuse of power and privilege. If your race denies you power and privilege, then you can't be racist. Certainly, you can still be an asshole. Just not a racist.
- Unless you are one of "those people" making fun of other people calling you "those people," then never say "those people."
- 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. Don't expect a 14-year-old girl who covers her hair to explain all of Islam to you in ten minutes or less simply because you're too lazy to read a book. Get a library card and let her eat her lunch in peace.
- Remember, we are not all from any one place. Pretending we are just makes you look delusional. So avoid the "We're all from Africa anyway" statements.
- Unless you have achromatopsia, never say "I don't see color."
If any of this offends you as a white person, I ask simply that you sit with that discomfort for a while. Really feel it. Now imagine that your distress weren't the temporary consequence of reading an article, but rather the permanent consequence of living in your own skin.