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America is such a global heavyweight that we forget the nation is only 235 years old, barely an adolescent as far as empires go. More than a third of U.S. history is marked by the legal institution of slavery and we’ve been dealing with the fallout of racial inequality ever since it was abolished. But cultural traditions run deep and propagate down generations. While progress is steady, America’s color lines don’t erase easy.

And few things warp a child’s mind more than the ridiculous notion that people don’t like you or judge you because you’re black. Even as an adult, it’s infuriating, depressing and demeaning all at once. Socially, it causes us to defend and define our existence out of habit. I’m not a “man in America” but rather a “black man in America,” and the difference is anything but subtle.

Today’s racism is often subtle, unlike the strain that infected the nation during the civil rights era. It’s carefully veiled. Daily situations are more shades of grey than simply black or white. Like any form of oppression, the people on the receiving end are left with the impotence to say something. But sometimes, our learned defensiveness jumps the gun and what appears to be classic racism may actually be a case of mistaken identity.

Here are the 7 most common things that get billed racist when the check should be going somewhere else.

Being Confused as a Store Clerk

Ever go shopping in [insert chain store here] and a white person asks you for help? The first thing you think is, “Oh, you think I work here because I’m black?” but not so fast. There are plenty of non-racist reasons someone might think you work there like your outfit. I’ve been caught out there wearing matching colors to the store clerks.

Sometimes people just aren’t being mindful. Say you knock over a few boxes of cereal and start resetting them as someone walks over with a burning question, hardly looking your direction in her thirst to consume. Silly things like that happen all the time. But if you’re wearing a boardroom suit in the supermarket and some white person comes up talking about, “where’s the oatmeal,” that’s some racist s#!@

“You people”

I know the phrase “you people” to be quite useful to describe a group of folks that share one or more bothersome qualities, like “you people taking up all the space by the subway car door” or “you people who don’t wait till passengers get off the car before boarding” and even “you people who keep sitting on my car.” Annoying people come from all ethnic backgrounds.

While it never looks good when a white person references a group of black people as “you people” it isn’t necessarily a racist statement. What’s wrong with you people?

Followed in a Store

It’s easy to get racist vibes when you’re followed around a convenience store but it’s a tricky proposition. Most people, black, white, whatever, about to commit a crime are dressed for the part. A black man wearing stereotypical clothing made famous by the media (a hoodie) is more likely to be hawked in the store than one wearing a business suit.

As someone that has tested this theory out on multiple occasions I can tell you its exceedingly easy to shoplift when you’re dressed for a corporate office. So when you’re getting a watchful eye from a store clerk or owner, take solace in the fact that though you are being profiled, it isn’t necessarily race related.

Face paint

The practice of blackface enjoyed a long and popular run in American entertainment and didn’t become taboo until late in the 20th century. Now, those ignorant enough to still don shoe polish are publicly crucified or worse. But while you’ll probably always double-take when you see a white person in dark face paint it’s not necessarily racist or blackface. The last time this came on a national scale was Robert Downey Jr’s satirical role in Tropic Thunder, in which he played an white Australian playing a black American general.

Describing Someone as Black

You’re talking with Bob from accounting and he’s trying to get you to remember someone from the holiday party, “you remember Jerry, the tall black guy.” And now you’re thinking, “I knew Bob was racist.” But simply mentioning someone is black isn’t the hallmark of a racist. Sometimes, it’s an effective way to remember someone.

Consider the opposite, which often happens in a mixed-race conversation. A white person, who wants to remind you of a black person without mentioning that key detail for fear of being considered ignorant. She’ll use a load of adjectives that are ultimately unhelpful. You may even be left with the burning question, “is she white or black?” but leave it out to avoid going “racial.”

“Everyone Looks Alike”

I was in the elevator and recognized someone new in the building. I asked, “Do you remember me?” when I could tell she obviously didn’t. Blushing and embarrassed, she admitted, “I’m confused, everyone looks alike.” I might have easily taken what she said as racist (she is east Indian) but I could tell that it wasn’t–not in this case.

Perhaps poorly worded, she was just remarking on the universally confusing task of getting to know new names and faces.

Not Having Black Friends

Birds of a feather flock together and by and large, so do folks from similar ethnic backgrounds and skin colors. So at the end of the day, should you be surprised that the average white (or other) person doesn’t have not a single black friend?

Sure, it may be a little weird, but having no black friends doesn’t make said white person any more racist than does not owning a pet make someone prone to animal cruelty though the door is always open for that possibility, in both cases.

But be on the lookout. The moment you discover an acquaintance doesn’t have any black friends may mean you’re being recruited as the “token.”


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