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10 Things NEVER to Say to a Black Coworker

“Fried chicken, anyone?” “You speak really well.” “Is that your real hair?”


You’d think the 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.

Read also: 9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues


1) You’re so articulate.


You’re so articulate? Smart? Different? Yes, the speaker may intend a compliment, but what may be 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.


“I haven’t had it said to me, maybe I’m not articulate enough, but I’ve heard a number of Blacks say they’ve had it said to them: ‘You’re so articulate’ or ‘You’re so smart or intelligent,'” says Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, former director of diversity at Disney ABC Television Group and current president at The Fontenot-Jamerson Group. In her many years in the diversity industry, Fontenot-Jamerson has seen and heard it all. Some of it still makes her cringe.


“I feel like education and awareness is my mission, so I try to be kind when I check people to help them understand what they just said,” she says. “I might make a joke to help them understand that it was a faux pas, and hopefully I have good enough relationships with them to have further conversations with them.”

2) Is that your real hair?

Danielle Robinson, director of diversity, talent and organizational design at Diageo, a wine, beer and spirits company, said she was amazed when she got this question from a colleague. But instead of getting angry, Robinson explained to her coworker why the question was inappropriate.


“There are a number of ways to respond. But I told the person they had no idea if they might be asking that question to someone suffering from a medical condition [such as] someone recovering from cancer treatment,” she says. “I wound up giving this one woman a little lesson because you never know what the situation might be of the person you’re asking a question.”


3) “You” people


“I’ve heard this one several times,” says Fontenot-Jamerson. Who exactly are “You people,” and how do they differ from regular people? Use this poorly chosen phrase at your own risk.


4) 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.


“One of my young relatives told me when they go out on interviews they may get queries about fried chicken and the stereotypes about the food that we like to eat,” says Fontenot-Jamerson.


5) Why are you so angry?


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

6) 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?


7) You don’t sound Black over the phone.


What does Black sound like?


8) 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.”

9) 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.”

10) 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. Fontenot-Jamerson believes it’s a word used far too casually among youths, both white and Black.


“The new generation uses the N-word very loosely [and] the white kids do it too,” she says. “I’ve been in the company where the youngsters have been using the word because they don’t understand the history that comes with it.”

Like Fontenot-Jamerson, Robinson looks at each misspoken phrase as an opportunity to teach and educate. “A lot of the questions are usually out of ignorance or genuine curiosity. So I always look at opportunities like these as a chance to educate,” says Robinson. “Instead of getting angry, you don’t want them to make this mistake with someone else. There are ways to ask a question more inquisitively that won’t offend.”

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63 Comments

  • How about references to the front / back of the bus? I’m white and I find those offensive and insensitive, especially when used by white males in position of power.

  • Felicia Marsh

    Denise,
    This article was very well written and informative. Thank you for sharing it with us. So many things went through my mind as I read it because truthfully, I have encountered every single one of those comments or questions in my young 44 years of living as an African-American woman. It is the “assumptions” that amaze and not offend me the most. I really had to develop a “thick” skin due to people’s curiosity which in and of itself is not bad. At times though, I get annoyed with others who assume that my background does not allow me to be black enough. After all, “black is a diverse experience that can only be defined by the individual. I am thankful to God that I am black and I am unique just as we all are regardless of our race and ethnicity!! :)

  • All well said. Now, in the interest of diversity, there should be a “10 Things NEVER to Say to a White Coworker”.

    • Joelyn K Foy

      I’m really curious what you think those would be?

      • Dafney Thorndeckell

        Yes. I’m REALLY curious as to what those ten things would be. Would anyone of the White persuasion care to answer?

        • A few might be as I have been asked. “Did your family owns any slaves?” This implies that they think nearly everyone did, when it was a very small percentage of the population, nor does it give any consideration that your relatives may have only been in the US for just a generation or so. Mine came to the US in 1900… well after the end of the Civil War, plus they migrated to Minnesota. For some reason, many Black people I speak with assume that all European Americans have been in the US for 300 plus years. The next is not a question, but my son played a lot of sports and he mentioned more than once that a Black friend or acquaintance would often be surprised and that he was good in basketball. And if he was to score a layup on an opposing player or do a good play, then that player would get razzed big time that a White” boy, as they would say, dogged him. They cared nothing how that made my son feel. Occasionally, I would here a few Black mothers say that never let their kids get away with this or that like White mothers do. Or if my kid did that, I would whoop that ass so bad. So the implication is all White mothers allow their kids to run wild over them. And that whooping is something to be replicated. I don’t have 10 at the moment, but these come to mind as experiences. Thank you.

    • What sorts of things would those be, Lee?

    • Lee, I really would like for you to tell me what those things might be. It would be helpful to know.

  • FYI,
    I cut and pasted this from top of THIS page:
    Read also: 9 Things NEVER to Say to White Colleagues

  • Nadine JB

    Looking for feedback….we are having a department picnic and there will be a watermelon eating contest. Since this has been published, a few minority individuals have expressed concerns based on “black” stereotypes. Please note that this is open to anyone in the department and is voluntary. Please share your thoughts on how I should handle this.

    • Nadine,

      I’m not sure if you meant to do this, but I wanted to thank you for expressing the absurdity of this conversation in such a direct and truthful way.

      Imagine not being able to have a watermelon eating contest because black people at the picnic thought it was insensitive — I grew up competing in watermelon eating contests at local picnics and fair. Yes, I’m what everyone here would refer to as “white” — and yes I’m a little fed up with all the PC stuff…that doesn’t make me a bigot, or a racist. It just makes me…fed up.

      What a shame that we’ve allowed aspects of contemporary race relations to get so far out of whack that we can’t even say the word watermelon without some sort of racial undertone ruining our day. There are real issues to contend with. This isn’t one of them!

      And as for real hair — you wouldn’t say that to *anyone* if you had any tact at all. Not African, Asian, European…etc.

      Jeeze people.

      • Luke Visconti

        You posit a hypothetical situation and say you’re “fed up” with “PC stuff”? Please go back to watching daytime television. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • What does “Please go back to watching daytime television.” mean? Is that some type of stereotype?

  • I want to say the college thing doesn’t seem that big of a deal to me. Mostly because I would say “Damn! You went to Cornell? WOW!” to anyone who actually went to Cornell. LMAO

    • I have to agree- anyone going to Cornell is an accomplishment that I’d make a big deal of. It’s like when someone asks me again ‘wait, YOU painted that?’ when they are impressed with a painting. They almost always mean it in the ‘Woah, I actually know someone who did something super cool!’ way, and not the ‘wait a moment… You, who I assumed was lame, can actually accomplish something noteworthy? I don’t believe YOU could do that.’

      • Luke Visconti

        I’ve been asked (several times) who writes all of my columns. When I reply, “I write everything that has my byline,” it’s usually met with astonishment. Oh well. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Jorge Hernandez

    Luke, how about an article on things to never say to a Hispanic/Asian/Middle Eastern coworker? By now I feel I’ve heard it all (from both whites AND blacks), although I know I’m surely mistaken. But then again, SOMEONE’S got to be the latest flavor of scapegoat for exclusionary bigotry, which seems to be as American an icon as apple pie, don’t they?

    • Please use our search feature and search for “things not to say”. We have many of these articles. -Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Deandre Green

    I just wanted to say thank you for educating the others ethnics out there i am very proud to be black but hate when people believe I’m supposed to act as my stereotypical kin, and I’m getting sick and tired of it. I was highly educated and don’t use slang as much as my picture framed people, for there are others the same color as me and just as well educated and i know that my race (African Americans) are no better and no less equal to the other ethnic groups out there, and that we all have the capability to be talented in our own ways. I am a young AA but I am not blind to the world of racism so thank you. And yes these things on the list are brought up to me constantly by my colleagues because I’m African American.

  • First quoted words from Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik in 2010 about his new manager: “Eric {Wedge] brings the energy, passion and leadership that we think is important as we move forward.”

    First quoted words from Zduriencik yesterday, about his latest new manager: “”Lloyd [McClendon] is a bright and articulate guy.”

    Guess which guy is black?

  • I have had a co-worker come to me during lunch ,while I am trying to enjoy my 30 minute lunch break. She ask me do I live in the bad neighborhood and she thought that I had four of five kids and baby mama drama. I did not get angry at her, because I thought it was ignorant of her to ask me that. I politely told her before she assume something about a person maybe you should get to know them first. I told not all black woman you see have baby mama drama ,majority of us are married and college educated and live in good neighborhoods. Stop looking at the media ,it’s only out to depict certain groups of people. If you want to know I live in a single family home in a military community ,my husband is a Master Sergeant and we have two daughters and we both have college degrees. If I did live somewhere that was not excepting to her are anyone its my business. The next time you ask a person of color a ignorant question think, they could be your neighbor.
    T. Motley

  • You can say you are so articulate to anybody.It IS a compliment and does have nothing to do with colour.i find a lot of black people are too sensitive about even innocent things said to them.

    • Luke Visconti

      If someone might be offended by being called “articulate,” and you can compliment people in ways they don’t find offensive, then why wouldn’t you do the easy thing and not be a jackass? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Awesome reaction, man.

        Anyway, I would say that if it doesn’t even occur to you that it can be taken as an insult, and if after having it pointed out, it’s still a stretch, then sure, you CAN stop using that particular expression. Just realize that probably 90% of your dialog will have to be painstakingly rewritten to appease someone who probably gets offended at traffic signs. And you’re probably still going to piss them off.

        No. Be direct. Be sincere. Be considerate. Have a little empathy. Don’t backpeddle when someone takes offense to something you say (because they may be right). Just explain it. And maybe make changes.

        If everyone adopted this attitude, like half of our communication problems would go away.

        (Irish white dude).

  • NoLogic=MostBlackPeople

    Keep deleting my true comments. Typical black person avoiding the truth at hand. Well I have 40+ emai addresses so your fucked.

    • Luke Visconti

      And we capture IP addresses. Yours is 174.58.119.81. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • NoLogic=MostBlackPeople

        Like this is my only computer lmao. Wait till I get home :)

        • Luke Visconti

          No problem, I’ll capture that IP as well. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • Dylan Ross

            So you publish an posters IP address? I guess diversity doesn’t include being ethical does it.

          • Luke Visconti

            We keep track of them, but don’t publish them. I had a death threat on Friday. I told the cretin to come and get it. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • NoLogic=MostBlackPeople

    Let me ask you one question and I will stop. What is equal rights to you? Your the CEO Luke, you should know best.

    • Luke Visconti

      I believe equal rights is measured by outcome because I also believe that all people are created equally. A society as diverse as ours is committing suicide unless it makes sure outcome is the only measurement that matters. As Frederick Douglass said, “It is far easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

      You don’t have to stop if you keep it civil—that would start with your changing the despicable name you’re using. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • MoreCivil

        Well I apologize for the anger. My whole thing is I feel like freedom of speech is kind one sided right now. Like for instance, if I speak my mind I’m considered racist. I went to an all black high school growing up. I got called every name in the book, it really fucked with mymy head big time. One day I had my book bag laying on the floor in my class. I went to the bathroom and came back and my cd player was stolen. My family could not afford much, so it was kinda of a big deal for me. I went to see the principle about it. I told her about it and told her who did it. This kid was a 100% class A bully. She immediately came back and said why because he’s black he stole it. Get out of my office so I confronted the kid and told him to give it back. All my classmates said stfu white kid, quit blaming him because he is black. I got hell for that for years even threats. It’s just I feel like we are getting to sensitthreative about topics. Not to say slavery was wrong and discrimination was just as bad. I just feel like I’m getting shit on for what my ancestors did. I have never owned a slave and never judged somebody for their skin color. I just want to be equal not judge for what I say and people put words in my mouth. Like I said I’m white and was born and raised in Atlanta and it was hell. Can you give me feed but on that. It’s making me question my morals. Thank you

        • Luke Visconti

          Apology accepted. Do you really think you’re racist? I don’t think so—I think you’re struggling with abuse you’ve faced in the past. If you don’t want to be a racist, then don’t be one. We all have the opportunity to evolve. If I may suggest something: Please speak to a professional. You’re on this site because you’re trying to resolve the trauma you faced. It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder; you don’t have to be a combat soldier to have it. I’m very serious about this—don’t feel ashamed to get some help.

          If you have civil questions, feel free. I may not have time to answer all of them, but if the question is civil, I’ll post it and I’m sure you’ll get some feedback from the audience. They’re a lot more gentle than I am. Take care. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • MoreCivil

            Thanks man means alot. It really does. Yeah am actually am seeing a lady but her views are kinda like mine lol. I am looking for another. Yeah I have lots of anger with myself and everything else.

          • Luke Visconti

            What you’re going through is real. You’ll be a better man for dealing with it. Stay in touch, brother. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • I work at an international company.
            When I first started was told ” you have pretty skin to be so dark. It’s not ashy like others you completion.” Was asked by a white co worker “why I was standing in the sun. Don’t black people avoid sun because they don’t want to be so dark?” Same coworker later stated she “wanted a black friend.” Recently told by white coworker “that there is nothing wrong with dressing h in black face.” Constantly asked if my hair is my hair by white women and men. Denied all promotions despite qualification. Told I will not be promoted ever. No reason given. Constantly yelled at and reprimanded in front of other coworkers.
            Despite college education told that it’s not I’m lying. Constantly made to prove what I know. Then told ” I took too long in proving.” More but too much to write.
            What would you do?

          • Use our career center to find a better place to work. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • At first when I started the job I was always asked by white coworkers “if I lived in a bad neighborhood because so and so dose.” ( the person in reference was african American also)
            Now that I have moved to a great neighborhood “I’m asked if I am on public assistance and asked how much is my rent constantly by white coworkers.” If something electronic goes missing I’m asked about by white employees and non African American employee. Keep being told that “I’m smart,” as if it is a shock to the company management. Was asked “when my lease was up “then arrangements were made for me to work all day and leave by the time my lease was up.
            Told never to leave my work space except for bathroom and lunch while others that are white and lighter than me are allowed to leave briefly. It seems that the management is trying to treat me like an indentured servant.

  • mark stokes

    I came to this article out of frustration over something that happened at work. a black coworker was visiting our area. he was standing next to one of my cube mates and they were razzing me goodnaturedly about something. I was sitting at my desk, looking directly at the two of them, side by side. understand she is white. as I said, we were joking and when it came my turn in our good natured ribbing I said ” no, you people just thought I said that, what I actually said was…blah blah”
    at “you people” my black coworker interrupted with “YOU people?!?”” as if I had been singling out several black coworkers which was far from the fact. I ignored his outburst and went on with my comment and the conversation went on and he didn’t make any more comment on “you people” and everything was fine. ive seen him several times since then and he seems fine. but I cant help but feel… disappointed that he would react that way. it bothers me. I know my heart and I know that I meant nothing racial about it. I was talking to a white blonde woman and a black man. comments?

    • Luke Visconti

      I’ve seen a lot of feelings hurt around the use of “you people.” It’s one of those things that just doesn’t register with most white people, but it can be deeply insulting, especially (in my experience) to African-Americans. Before anybody in the jackass brigade starts braying “get over it,” how about we all just not use that phrase anymore?

      Please try apologizing again. Chances are both of you will feel better. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • mark stokes

        i don’t think I made myself clear. I was talking to two people, one black, one white. there was not only no racial malice intended, there was no common sense way someone could assume it was meant in a racial way. im not apologizing because I did nothing wrong, even accidentally. I am not going to confess to the sins of others. sorry.

  • Mike Wilson

    Hi Luke,

    Do you consider affirmative action and employment equity reverse discrimination towards white males? Do you feel as though white males born after the age of perverse discrimination are being unfairly marginalized by these policies?

  • I happened upon this website when it popped up on a fairly unrelated search but have found the content so interesting. I’m a white female, 31 years old and I am so disappointed that in our country there is a wound remaining that is still so deep. It is sad that we cannot yet trust one another enough to believe that our compliments are genuine. If I tell you you’re articulate, it’s because I speak for a living and if I say it, you’re articulate. I’m hoping my generation may change things. I was raised by folks that were kind of hippies. This may get long but please read. When the topic of skin color arose from our little minds, we were shown a globe. My parents pointed to N. Africa and explained that this is where life started, the sun is strong there and you know how you get sunburned? Well, when the first people lived here, they needed dark skin so they didn’t get sunburned all the time. And when the first people started exploring and moving away, they moved to places where it wasn’t as sunny. But they needed the sun to live so their skin got lighter. Then they pointed to where we are from, Ireland, and said, with a chuckle, it’s not very sunny and it rains alot there. That’s why we are so pale. Done, over that was the first skin color conversation. And so began my frame of reference in life. It may not have been the best explanation to some but it framed my reality immediately. Skin color became a function of the origin of someone’s family long ago. Humans were humans. And I suppose growing up with friends of numerous backgrounds helped too, if for no other reason than we were all able to ask those stupid, offensive questions of each other before our offense meters had been constructed. We need to talk about it with our children and work to build the world we all say we want.

    • Luke Visconti

      Regardless of intention, a compliment is in the eyes of the beholder. Regarding where human beings emanated from, it’s sub-Saharan Africa, not Northern Africa—specifically, the Great Rift Valley.

      I used to refer to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, but the organization has whitewashed its website and buried the genetic results it came up with. My hunch is that National Geographic was bombarded by the same white-supremacist garbage we are—and they chickened out. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • That_PR_Guy

    From the very first item on your list, I was frustrated. Sooooooooooo sensitivie to even the slightest remark to be upset by someone stating you’re articulate? Take the compliment and stop twisting it into something you want it to be, just so you can be offended by it. It’s people like you, who keep racism in the headlines, simply because you want everyone else in the world to cater to your overly sensitive “oppressed” self esteem. You’re oppressing yourself, Mrs. Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson. I will commend you though, you seem very articulate. Now, get off your high horse and stop crying out “VICTIM!”.

    • Luke Visconti

      That’s an odd approach to take for a self-described PR expert. How about this: Rather than reeducate tens of millions of women, keep this in mind—it’s not about you. Try not to piss people off. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I think that this is a very serious topic but has been dealt with too lightly here. Number 5 is not just reserved for black males. This question can be the basis for termination for black males and females.

    It starts very innocuously. a Co-worker says, “You don’t seem happy”. Black person get on guard! Its code!

    The boss will soon call you in and say that initially 2 people made that remark. He ignored it. But, now several people have reported this to him and he is now called to talk to you”.

    White folk, if you have a problem with a black person, go to him or her. We are a direct people. Whites tend to be indirect. They prefer going to authorities. We like to handle our own issues. Try that. Unless your goal is to get the black person fired….. hmmmm.

  • I find it odd in the extreme that as proponents of “diversity” (whatever that non-word may imply) you encourage such an extreme form of censorship. Have you never read the our Constitution? What part of the Right to free speech ALL Americans share do you not understand?
    Further, why do you choose blacks as your model of insensitivity, are you saying that black people are to dumb to recognize good intentions when they see it, or are you saying that black people are too thin skinned to tolerate the notion that a compliment can be sincere–or are you saying, in choosing blacks as your overly sensitive subject group that they are simply not bright enough to understand a compliment when they hear it (and by intimation that whites would deliberately provoke a work mate).
    However you choose to slice it you leave the implication that blacks are too poorly educated or too stupid and that by design whites who have learned to compliment someone on a job well done should learn to walk on egg shells when talking to, only, black employees–by extension, the absurdity you invent in the name of a fiction called “diversity” (a word that NEVER existed befor 1965) when applied to baseball, for example, would say we should ONLY cheer on a team member if they were white.
    However, since as I suppose, you are seriously NOT concerned with the reality of truth, freedom, or even equality but instead only concerned with how much money you can fleece businesses of in the course of your “training,” I would not expect a reasonable (or even understandable) answer to these any of these questions.

    • Luke Visconti

      You missed the entire point of the article, “doctor.” It’s not really written for people like you anyway, it’s for people who work alongside Black people and don’t want to inadvertently insult them. Something tells me that you couldn’t give a care who you insult.

      The word “Velcro” wasn’t around before 1965 either, but I bet you find it useful on your shoes and to hold up your pants. Things evolve. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I’m glad you posted this article. I think it serves as a reminder to be considerate of what you say to others.

    Last week I was talking with a coworker and she started to talk about slavery. She said that once slavery was abolished, a lot of slaves did not want to leave. They were comfortable knowing their lot in life. She then went on to compare slavery to the current day workforce, saying we are all slaves now — slaves to an organization, slaves to a paycheck, etc. I was floored. She really didn’t get it. I tried to explain there are a number of differences between those scenarios, including the fact that organizations treat their employees well, they pay them for the work they do and you are free to chose who you work for and what you do. Unfortunately, I don’t know that she’ll ever understand how awful it was to hear that comparison.

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