“We should put the headline in Ebonics!”
A couple of years ago, I stopped by the office of a major newspaper I regularly freelanced for and heard a white editor make this comment with a snicker. Apparently the paper was running a front-page story about a black man, and he became the punchline of the editor’s inappropriate joke. She didn’t realize I was just outside her office. I stopped in my tracks and momentarily forgot why I had been passing her door in the first place, incensed and astonished that a professional journalist in a major city would openly make such a racially insensitive comment. But then, looking around the newsroom and its distinct lack of color, it became clear why this editor felt completely comfortable doing so.
“He’s not one of those stupid black basketball players. He’s articulate.”
In yet another racism-at-work tale, earlier this year I overheard a white sportswriter say this to a colleague while in the press box at a major sporting event. He was referencing some professional basketball player, and he didn’t realize I was walking right behind at the time. I knew this writer. We’d had several conversations, and he seemed nice enough, but this comment certainly altered my view of who he was beneath the social niceties. It also reminded me how many prejudices remain hidden below the surface, uninspected and unspoken, only to rise up and reveal themselves when their targets are seemingly out of sight.
“So, do you guys know any white people?”
This was not a racial slur, but in some strange way it felt like the sum of all racial slurs, because it spoke to the core of where all slurs originate: a sense of division, separation, disconnection.
It was 2010, and my black cousins and I had struck up a conversation with a friendly white man outside a hotel lounge in Boston. He was drunk and we were black. And so he asked us if we knew any white people, a question I’m sure my Italian mother would have found amusing. Apparently he was going to ask about possible mutual friends, but before he asked if we knew specific white people, he needed to ask if we knew any white people.
I believe that if he’d been sober, he probably would have censored this question out of his conversation. I’m glad he didn’t, because it revealed a truth about his view of blacks that his sober mind would have suppressed – that we are fundamentally different, somehow detached, existing in our own separate universes where whites may or may not be included.
His comment, like so many others, surprised me when I thought I’d lost the ability to be surprised by racism, forced me to re-examine a lingering social ill I was sure I understood. As much as we believe there are certain boundaries racism won’t cross – friendship, family, the workplace, common sense – reality often proves otherwise.
What’s the craziest race-related remark you’ve heard? Sound off in the comments.
Lauren Carter is a writer, blogger and hip-hop head from Boston. Follow her on Twitter @ByLaurenCarter.
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