SLIDESHOW: 10 Things NEVER to Say to a Black Coworker

10 Things NEVER to Say to a Black Coworker
10 Things NEVER to Say to a Black Coworker

You would think taboo subjects and phrases would be clearly outlined and understood by all when it comes to what is and is not acceptable to say to a Black colleague. But that’s far from the case. Here are 10 things you never want to say to a Black coworker or boss.

 

“You’re so articulate.”
“You’re so articulate.”

You’re so articulate? Smart? Different? Yes, the speaker may intend a compliment, but what is meant as praise instead comes across as being condescending. It implies the person being complimented is an exception to the rule and is exhibiting behavior atypical of others of his or her ethnic background.

 

“Is that your real hair?” and “Can I touch your hair?”
“Is that your real hair?” and “Can I touch your hair?”

This question should not be asked of ANY person. Hair and grooming are personal. Read Do Blacks Need to Relax Their Natural Hair to Get Promoted? for more on this subject. As a general practice, you also should never initiate unsolicited and/or inappropriate physical contact with anyone.

 

“I actually voted for Obama.”
“I actually voted for Obama.”

It’s not what you say—but when you say it. Telling a Black person you voted for Obama when you’re conversing about what’s being offered in the cafeteria downstairs or immediately after discussing last night’s game unintentionally highlights underlying issues of race that exist.

The statement is an attempt to create affinity or commonality, says Kraft Foods Group Vice President of Diversity Jim Norman, but translates as superficial. “Don’t assume to know who I support politically,” Norman says.

 

“Do you eat a lot of [plug in the offending stereotype here]?”
“Do you eat a lot of [plug in the offending stereotype here]?”

Some stereotypes simply refuse to die. There’s nothing wrong with natural curiosity about the ethnic eating habits of some of your coworkers. The problem lies in focusing on stereotypical Black fare such as fried chicken, watermelon, etc. It reveals the speaker has a very limited and narrow perception of Black culture and cuisine.

 

“You graduated from where?”
“You graduated from where?”

This particular offense came to our attention directly from one of our readers, Beatriz Mallory, who wrote, “In a career of nearly 30 years, I’ve heard them all. I am both African-American and Hispanic, so I get it from both sides, on top of being a female. In trying to recall the worst, I’d have to nominate this one. It is the unguarded question “YOU went to CORNELL? WOW!” The implication is that in their mind, someone like me isn’t automatically worthy of such an accomplishment. I never express my annoyance.”

 

“I don’t think of you as Black.”
“I don’t think of you as Black.”

DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti received a letter from a reader who was presented with this particular compliment. He responded, “What you are experiencing is the first instance of a person accepting another person who is outside of their ‘tribe.’ Although the words and the sentiment are insulting, the person expressing them is (usually) not consciously trying to insult you. In their backward and ignorant way, they are actually trying to give you a compliment.”

 

“Why are you so angry?”
“Why are you so angry?”

This one is more often directed at Black males, thanks in large part to the media, which often portray Black men as being angry and/or criminals.

 

“You don’t sound Black on the phone.”
“You don’t sound Black on the phone.”

What does Black sound like?

 

“Why are you acting white?”
“Why are you acting white?”

Consider this a relative of “You’re so articulate.” Why would exhibiting proper behavior, manners or dialect be categorized as acting white? If that’s the case, what does it mean to act Black?

 

The N-word
The N-word

The ultimate faux pas. Just because you’ve seen repeats of Dave Chapelle’s show where the word is used liberally, that doesn’t give you–or anyone–license to make conversational use of the word. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking substituting an “-a” for the “-er” makes the word acceptable, explains Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson in this DiversityInc article.

 

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11 Comments

  • Vicki Sue

    Though I can understand the concern about “You went to CORNELL, WOW”. I would say that to ANYONE given that I think ANYONE going and/or graduating from CORNELL or some other perceived high-academic, difficult to get in university is an AWESOME achievement. And given my very humble background of attending a state university.

  • This is a don’t do as opposed to a don’t say. Although it is universal it particularly applies to minorities. Please don’t walk up and interrupt a conversation between two minorities as if their conversation was of no importance. To this day I can be engaged in conversation with a friend only to have a white walk up and ask a job related question without the courtesy of an “excuse me.” That is not just rude, it assumes that our conversation could not have been business related. If I say nothing then I am accepting an insult but if I call them out on it then I am the angry Black man! Can’t win for losing.

    • You are right. Coming from a small college in the mountain west, a chance to work with someone from an Ivy college is/was a big deal for me.

  • Manuel McDonnell Smith

    Vicki, thanks for your feedback. Personally, I can understand your views having also worked with Ivy Leaguers. However, what Beatriz & Ray are saying is that timing AND vocal inflections are factors in how the statement can be received by the listener. What is meant as a compliment can be taken as an affront if not presented in the right way. Just as yelling in a previously quiet place or USING ALL CAPS in a text conversation can be confused as confrontational, it’s nice to know up front that this comment has the potential to be taken in the wrong context. Careful thought before “blurting” it can save everyone a lot of woe. Manuel McDonnell Smith, Web Managing Editor

  • When people say “You went to HARVARD?,” I reply with “I GRADUATED from Harvard.”

    I also love it when they say, “You don’t act like a Harvard graduate” and then admit that I am the first Harvard graduate they have actually ever met.

    Finally, one of my fondest memories was when someone I knew for years “suddenly” realized that I am Black. I saw this Rastafarian friend of mine about once or twice a month at various musical gatherings. One day we ran into each other at The African Marketplace and he blurted out, “You’re Black” and at first I was confused. [According to my spouse, I am more Orange than Black, but I am African American.] Then this Black friend of mine explained that he meets interesting people from all over during his world travels. He had me stored in his mind with his white friends because of my education and experiences. It wasn’t until he saw me at the Marketplace that it dawned on him that I am Black.

    True stories.

  • This seems like something written in the 1970s. Sure hope my fellow white people aren’t quite this stupid anymore.

    • Luke Visconti

      Hope is an option, reality is a necessity. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Sorry to say it is not the 70′s and as a black woman who is active in the design industry,
      I have had the “Articulate” thing occur more times than I can count.
      I remember always trying an work it out in my head…was it my natural that made them think I would launch an opening statement with, ” Yo, yo…is dis da place wit da job?”
      And if I had…would it make them as uncomfortable as it has being what they perceive as articulate?
      Who knows? Who cares?

      I tend to give distance to those people if I can afford to.

  • I have NO IDEA where you got the idea that the angry thing is directed primarily at men. “Angry black woman” is every bit as much of a stereotype and gets directed at us constantly… CONSTANTLY. In fact, black men are some of the main participants in that particular microagression toward black women.

  • I’m a black woman and 27yrs old and I can tell you I had at least 8 of these things happen more than you would imagine. especially the angry black person. that is almost a everyday thing. I can be reading paperwork and thinking about a task at work and white co-workers will avoid me or ask me if I’m mad. it alone irritates me. lol

  • 51 yr. old and I love the skin I am in…recently heard a comment, where are you from? I tell them and mostly white people say is that where you where born? Like I’m lying. Just because I am dark and have dreads that puts me in the islands or west indies. I dont get it?

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