You Can Tell People What Not To Say To Black Women, But It's What They Don't Say That Bothers Me

I’m less concerned about what’s said in front of me than what’s said behind my back or what’s not said at all.
Publish date:
March 1, 2013
racism, how not to be a dick, microaggression

During my gap year in 2005, I applied to Oxford University. After a lengthy interview process and practical exam, I was rejected. Internally I wrestled as to why. Did my interviewer think I was too “sassy”? Precocious? Aggressive? What did I do wrong? It wasn’t until I got a phone call from a good friend who’d been rejected from Oxford the year prior (she was also black), I felt somewhat reassured. "You’ll be OK. You’re more than good enough as you are. Don’t let this hold you back."

Yesterday I read an article on xoJane entitled, “10 Things Every Non-Black Person Should Know (By Now) About Black Women.” A few weeks before there was “How Not To Be A Dick To Your Black Friend”. I’d also read “How Not To Be A Dick To Your Fat Friends” and “10 Things Straight People Say That Make Me Want to Throttle Them." Beyond the fact that I feel these “how not to be a dick” articles can go on until infinity, all of them have left me feeling conflicted.

An article published by the Guardian this week, revealed that white applicants are twice as likely to be granted admission to Oxford University than ethnic minorities, even when they have the same A-Level grades. My friends and I weren't alone. There’s a trend. Despite what's being said to your face in interviews -- that you are smart, capable, poised, etc. -- something's being unsaid, resulting in negative outcomes behind the scene. It's the unsaid that really scares me.

At the risk of conflating, I’ll say the vein that runs throughout all these pieces is a variant of the same theme; Strong smart women from groups that society has thrust “other” status on explain to the majority (implicitly white and male), how to speak to them. I applaud this.

I’m aware of the frustrating, insipid, are-you-kidding-me encounters anyone who’s deemed a minority, regularly has with people who are willfully or unintentionally ignorant. As a British Nigerian woman who’s a self-identified Christian Feminist (get your head around that one), I can unequivocally say these incidents are not made up. Minorities confront casual prejudice more regularly than they speak out about it. More regularly than we even realize at times, because many of us have become desensitized to the folly. I understand the impetus behind articles that would urge people not to touch a black woman’s hair, or describe someone as the “gay friend” -- dealing with inane behavior gets tiring and it must be addressed.

However, for me, the basic premises are flawed. To use your personal experiences, (or even those of your social circle) as the sole lens with which you perceive the behavior of the majority, then extrapolate from that a code of practice by which you believe they should adhere to is flawed. Your perspective, is your perspective. I get it. We’re humans and cannot help but be anthropocentric, but to use yourself as the central unit of analysis and then speak on behalf of other members of your group completely misses the point.

Anything presented axiomatically about black women/lesbians/overweight people/any group society manages to simultaneously fetishize and revile, is problematic because these groups are not monolithic. Humans are nuanced and complex. We are similar, but good grief we are different. To use categorizations regarding what offends us all and how we expect to be treated, dismisses our individual complexity and autonomy.

I don't think we should vigorously and preemptively police what people say around us. I tend to prescribe to Mill’s Harm Principle, and distill others' (and my) code of conduct in conversation to a single tenet -- “Be Respectful.” I will not present you with a list of what to do and not to do. We are adults, capable of cogent thought, exercising caution and bit of wisdom. Let us all endeavor to show everyone respect.

I’m less concerned about what’s said in front of me than what’s said behind my back or what’s not said at all. I had been hitherto afraid and somewhat ashamed of voicing my fear of the “unsaid” things, because I thought it’d make me seem paranoid and sensitive.

What happens when people “like me” leave the room and people “unlike me” make their decisions or truly speak their mind? My fear is that despite all the talk of “Post-racialism,” many of those who occupy positions of power believe the “other” is less qualified, worthy and deserving of opportunities. That we are somehow fundamentally different from them.The real battle doesn’t lie with the said, but in the unsaid. We can attempt to police what people say around us all we want, but that doesn’t necessarily change how they behave when no one can see them. And that is what terrifies me.