Overhearing people discussing race can be cringeworthy at times.
Frustration struck me when I overheard a coworker giving someone a lesson on race yesterday. He stated that if a black person uses “proper” English as opposed to Ebonics, they are essentially “acting white” so you can call them “White-ish”, i.e. kind of White. He went on to say that he knows white guys (he named Eminem as one) who act “more black” than some of the black guys he knows and it’s okay to call them “Black-ish.” I’ve experienced racial microaggressions before and have overheard countless racist comments as well but this was a co-worker so his comments were considerably more hurtful to me. After bringing my concerns to my supervisor who then reprimanded my coworker, my coworker gave me a halfhearted apology which I accepted although I know he still isn’t aware of how hurtful and offensive his comments were. I would hesitate to call my coworker racist, instead I’d say he’s very ignorant, and ignorance can hurt as much as racism at times.
The issue behind this is of course stereotypes, oversimplified or erroneous ideas that are used to define specific groups of people. People often say that not all stereotypes are negative, so what’s the big deal? Unfortunately stereotypes, both good and bad, can affect how we treat people. By utilizing stereotypes we don’t have to think on our own, we can just dig through the collection of stereotypes we’ve curated and suddenly we think we know all about somebody based on an attribute. I find using stereotypes to be a very lazy and clumsy approach but unfortunately one that many people use. Are you treating me based on what you’ve learned about me through our interactions, or based on what you THINK you know about me? I can usually tell.
Based on his definitions on “Blackness” and “Whiteness”, my co-worker perceives me as a black person who “acts white” because of the way that I talk. My coworker thought it was okay to make such comments to a young Korean girl new to Canada, one who had never interacted with non-Koreans before moving here. Here you’ve been given a prime opportunity to educate a newcomer to your country about Canadian culture and diversity, but instead decide to use stereotypes to illustrate your point. I am reminded of the fact that what we tell people who may not have been exposed to different cultures, like what we tell our children in their early years about race, is crucial in how they interact with the “Other.”
The strength to be oneself in a society that says you should be such and such a way because of your outward appearance is something we shouldn’t take lightly. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to be ourselves, individuals, and not be afraid of doing things that apparently members of our race do not do. I think we all, especially people of colour, should refuse to be restricted to a two-dimensional image. We should demand to see more realistic portrayals of ourselves in movies, we should surround ourselves with stories of people of colour going against the odds for inspiration. Many of us are fortunate enough to live in societies where we have so many options and so much exposure to diversity so why shouldn’t we take advantage of these? I will certainly do so.
Like I told my coworker, just because I, a black woman, don’t speak in Ebonics (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with speaking in Ebonics, just a little disclaimer here!) doesn’t mean I’m “White-ish.” I’m completely black regardless of what I wear, how I speak, what I eat and how I act. I’m black because of genetics and my African heritage. I appreciate the diversity in people and acknowledge that the way one is is often due to personality, the culture they are socialized in, their immediate environment, and who they interact with.