White Women, I Am Not Your "Girl" And No, You Can't Say The N-Word

When a white woman calls me "girl" or "girlfriend," she reminds me that my racial experience can be co-opted.
Publish date:
April 15, 2014
race, friendship, black women, white women, vernacular, black culture

My roommate and I get along perfectly. We’re in a two bedroom-two bathroom apartment, and I have a separate entryway so we can go days without seeing the other. After we first met, I left the apartment excited but anxious. “Can I live with a white woman?” I half joked to my friend. We chuckled and didn’t say much else about it, but we both knew what I meant.

Not long after I moved in, I got this text from her: “Hey Girl! Just wanted to let you know the electric bill came in today.”

It immediately reminded me of that time when I was in high school and Ann Perkins greeted me in the hallway with, “What’s up, girlfriend!” Ann and I had known each other since the fourth grade and maybe spoke ten words to each other between elementary and high school. Yet, there she was, calling me “girlfriend” apropos of nothing. I think she even high-fived me, too.

In any case, the micro-aggressions of “hey girl” iterations are too many to count -- it’s a part of our American racial fabric: I, black person, walk past you, white person, who then says something that subtly yet aggressively triggers that we are different, but luckily for you, my color signifies a racial experience that's then co-opted for amusement, or irony, or I don’t know what.

So when I saw a recent Facebook post by Rebecca Carroll (yes, the xoJane editor), I grinned knowingly. Her post read: “Now I know that white folks are going to continue to appropriate black vernacular no matter what all -- but I'm kind of going to need them to stop appropriating it AT me. To wit, white women, all the best, but please stop calling me ‘boo.’ Thanks.”

Ha! Poor woman, I know how she feels. I quickly “liked” her post and commented, asking if we could add “girl” to the list. What I didn’t do was change whatever setting it is that shuts off notification every single time someone comments on something you commented on (typing that explanation just now has me feeling so many things). Thusly, a few hours later, I log back on and see a slew of responses to Rebecca’s pithy post.

I’d (wrongly) presumed most of the responses would be like mine, with suggested additions to the list of appropriations black folk could do without. Instead, the responses expressed sentiments of, well, butthurt -- a term I loathe, but fits here. No one asked, “What do you mean, Rebecca?” or, “Where is this coming from?” -- or even, “Ha, OK, guess it’s one of those days!”

And, fine, I can’t be too upset that no one did hypotheticals I just made up in my head. BUT comment after comment came from white women expressing shock and defensiveness couched in the context of her own personal interracial best friendship, whereupon she cited her “black best friend” who calls her “boo.”

It bothered me that instead of asking this woman of color what she meant, she was met with pearl-clutching “Who, me? Why I never!” So I said as much: “What I find the most fascinating about this thread here is how IMMEDIATELY white folks don't respond with ‘hm, tell me more about this?’ But with narratives about who they are and their relationship to the word as if or *because* when a white person lays claim then it simply must be so. Smh.”

Not surprisingly, I was met with even more defensiveness explaining what was behind the defensiveness. One woman said she wanted to bring attention to her relationship to the word "boo" within the conversation even while acknowledging that doing so makes the discussion entirely about her and her own sentiments.

Thus came my final reply:

“the entire point of my post's ‘hm, tell me more about this’ was suggesting that there's no inquiry about how Rebecca feels, whats her narrative, what truths led her to make such a (albeit, somewhat satirically) request. Your response and others are all about you. And, above, you, unintentionally, proved my point yet again. that's all. i don't know you and you seem like a genuinely nice, well-intentioned person. please understand my next statement: when black people talk about white people, we're usually not talking about one white person in particular (i mean, we could do that, too, but we have jobs, lives, sanity to protect), we are discussing the very lens white people see through and the privileges woven throughout their natural lives that are intrinsically tied to the oppression of others. when a white person makes our black plights, quips, misgivings, burdens, about them individually, all that results in is focusing on the *white person* w/o focusing on the structures in place, too.”

When I bristle at a white woman calling me boo or girl or girlfriend or sister, it’s not that I am then making her the singular target of white supremacy. It’s that she has effectively (indeed, breezily) reminded me of that the structure still exists, and more importantly, of my exact place in it.

Other people on Rebecca’s thread asked whether she was suggesting black people “own” the word “boo.” No, we most certainly do not -- indeed, we don’t own most of anything, but it does seem like whenever we give currency to a word (I’m thinking of a particular one starting with N), white people sure do get in a tizzy about it. Do we own it? Why can’t they say it? What about singing along only?

If you think I sound ridiculous right now, please note: This is how you sound when you ask why you can’t say a word. It’s not about who can say what, it’s about how black people feel when white people say words that are familiar to us, among us. If we ask white folks to tone it down a little, that’s really OK.