When I Wrote About White Folks Calling Me “Girl” Or “Boo," I Misspoke

It’s never about one word, it’s about the intonations that seem to arise when having any interracial exchange.
Publish date:
April 18, 2014
racism, race, language, black vernacular

I’m generally loath to water down my sentiments when it comes to calling out the arms and executions of white supremacy. So I’ll say this, when I wrote about white folks calling me “girl” or “boo” et al, I misspoke. Even though I very explicitly said that neither anyone nor we owns a word I can see how my approach was confusing. Especially as comments in the original Facebook thread concerned a personal anecdote about what white women do and say to each other or their friends of color.

It hit me today as I went over the comments with a friend at work -- an older black woman -- and she laughed, exclaiming it’s never about one word, it’s about the affect, the intonations that seem to arise when having any interracial exchange.

“You see the same white person at work for months talk one way with his white peers and then he sees you and, all of a sudden, it’s ‘What’s up man?’ and all that. How come he doesn’t do that with the white folk, he calls them by their names, so what happened to my name?” THAT. She went on to ask what would her white peers do if she walked up to them in some stereotypical nasally high-pitched voice. We laughed that we do that anyway, but not for fun.

We started in on how we, as black folk, are constantly code switching, adopting and mimicking and creating behaviors and personas as we move from spaces of varying racism. White people code switch, too, and that’s the problem.

When you, white person, engage with me and code switch into whatever you think (consciously or unconsciously) that I, black person, must behave or be, it doesn’t create any familiarity -- it reminds me quite painfully that what I do for survival you do for fun.

Because you don’t only do it with me or other bodies that signal difference to you -- you do it with your white peers when sharing certain stories or dancing to certain songs or dressing a certain way. This is what I’m reminded of when you, white person who barely knows me, approaches me with a “Yo, whassup?” when I’ve never seen you do that with anyone else.

The next time you see someone you know well and have a bit of juicy gossip, take extra note of the tone of your voice, the intonation when you say, gurrrrl -- what exactly are you performing? Where did you hear this? And if everyone around you says this and always has, then dig into the origins of that. Because I promise you, these little silly things come from (and perpetuate) systems of power.

The next time you see me, or any other person of color whom you don’t know, think about how you acknowledge my presence (if at all but that’s another post)? Does your voice pick up a certain sass? Do you move your neck in a way usually reserved for body stretches? 
I have a strong feeling many of you will react to this post as overly sensitive and you’d be right, it is. In order for us to successfully code switch we, minorities, have perfected the art of silently but perfectly knowing the oppressor’s every move, usually before you do.

Although on second thought, I don’t think I’m being any more or less sensitive than those who read my original piece or saw Rebecca’s post and immediately went into their personal story as the corrective truth to other’s reality. When there’s a criticism of language, usually and especially by a minority, the personal narrative plays a significant role in dismissing the voiced plights of the oppressed.

What an interesting portrait: the majority sounds his/her voice and personal story in order to tell me, the minority, that MY voice and story are invalid.