‘You Must Have Voted for Obama’: 5 Things NEVER to Say to Blacks

Black execs from Kraft and Wells Fargo tell you how to turn these offensive encounters into opportunities for cultural-competence education.

Jim Norman, Adrienne Bruce, Michelle Lee

‘You Must Have Voted for Obama’: 5 Things NEVER to Say to Blacks

Jim Norman, Adriene Bruce, Michelle Lee

“You’re so articulate,” “You must have voted for Obama” and “I love your name, it’s so ethnic” top the list of blatantly obvious things you shouldn’t say to Blacks. But it’s not always about what you should say as much as how and when you say it.

“The comments frequently may be coming from an unconscious bias,” says Kraft Foods Group Vice President of Diversity Jim Norman. Living in an increasingly diverse country doesn’t necessarily make it easier. In fact, it becomes more difficult, especially when you’re unsure of how best to build relationships at work. People struggle to find affinity and fall back on stereotypes unintentionally, Norman says.

Most people aren’t aware of the negative impact their words can have on others, according to Wells Fargo Executive Vice President and Northeast Regional President Michelle Lee. She recommends that Blacks “call it to attention and explain how what [the person] said sounds. The average person doesn’t walk around wanting to be offensive and most are very grateful for the insight.”

Norman also advises not to jump to conclusions of racism or discrimination. “These instances are best responded to candidly, with some sense that the individual asking the question is doing so from a lack of knowledge,” he says.

5 Things NEVER to Say to Blacks

1. “You’re so articulate.”
This phrase is one of the most frequently cited gaffes. “When someone makes this statement, they think they are providing the receiver with a compliment,” explains Adriene Bruce, Vice President of Consulting, DiversityInc.

But the comment implies that the person is an exception to a rule, which promotes stereotypes. “It comes from ignorance or lack of exposure and is nonintentional,” says Bruce, but it’s condescending.

2. “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 Norman, but translates as superficial. “Don’t assume to know who I support politically,” Norman says.

3. “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? (www.diversityinc.com/natural-hair) for more on this subject. As a general practice, you also should never initiate unsolicited and/or inappropriate physical contact with anyone.

4. “You people”
Referencing Blacks or any other demographic as a collective “you” quickly causes negative assumptions that you mean to offend. “You’re implying an intention to make the Black person—or any person—at the receiving end of the statement feel substandard,” says Bruce. For example: “Please be on time, since you people have a tendency of being late.”

“No specific race is late,” Bruce says. “People are late and people are on time.”

5. “Do you know any good diversity candidates?” and “Let’s take a risk on a diverse candidate”
“Yes, I know good diversity candidates. Why don’t you?” says Norman, noting that the word “good” suggests a belief that the majority are not qualified. While the speaker may not intend to imply this negative connotation, it implies that choosing a Black for a senior-level position is a risk.

“Usually it’s someone trying to be very supportive of the company’s or their own diversity initiative, but a statement like that lands negatively on people,” explains Lee. “What I’ve done is called it to their attention and explained how that sounds.”

Bruce, Lee and Norman also advise to avoid these phrases:

  • “Is this how the brothers do it?”
  • “I love your name, it’s so ethnic” and “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned names like Bob, Jim and Mary?”
  • “You’re like the Black [insert white person here]” and “You look like [insert famous Black person here]”
  • “So what sport did you play?”
  • “I don’t see color” (“Sure you do,” says Norman)
  • “You are only here to meet the company’s quota”
  • Don’t try to dance, rap or use terms associated with hip-hop culture in jest
  • Don’t assume all Blacks are African-American; there also are people who are African, Afro-Latino, Afro-European, Afro-Caribbean, etc.
  • Read more at www.diversityinc.com/10-things-blacks

Most importantly, companies need to equip their employees to have these difficult conversations and take advantage of these opportunities to provide some cultural perspective, stress Lee and Norman. An organization can address acts of discrimination, but that will not mitigate less obvious stereotypes and biases.

“When people have a good relationship, they can talk about a few things very openly. irrespective of race and gender. We all have biases we need to become aware of and we need to become conscious of what we do and say,” explains Norman, noting that it’s important for Blacks to take the time and get everyone engaged in genuine conversations about diversity and how stereotypes affect them.

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  • Charity Dell

    This is a great list! Let me add a few more that have bothered me for YEARS:

    1. “You’re not like the OTHER Black people!”–this is code language for “You speak standard American English” or “you have interests OTHER than hair, clothes and sports.” Most African-americans over 30 do NOT speak “urban hip-hop slang” and believe it or not, African
    American Vernacular English (AAVE)is not the only language spoken by African-americans! So please don’t look shocked if we speak French, Spanish, Portuguese,
    German, Russian, Tagalog or Mandarin in addition to Standard American English.

    2. “Don’t you attend Shiloh BAPTIST Church?” NO–we are also Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, and non-denominational Christians, in addition to Baptist. TV and movies always portray us as some kind of “Generic Baptist”–but media portrayals are not REALITY! Some of us are also BAHAI, BUDDHIST, JEWISH and MUSLIM.

    3. “Why are Black people different colors?”–Answer–for the same reason that the REST of humanity has different
    colors–GENETIC VARIATION. (I’ve been asked this question by college graduates).

    4. “Why can’t you just forget about slavery and “move on”?–Answer–It’s a vital part of our history AND the history of the United States. We can’t “just forget”
    about hundreds of years of systemic oppression, any more
    than Jews “should just forget about the Holocaust” or
    Irish people “should just forget about the potato famine” or Americans should “just forget about 1776.”
    Knowing and scknowledging ALL of your history is the first step to understanding TODAY’S socio-political

  • Jeffrey Schmitt

    “Don’t assume all Blacks are African American; there also are people who are African, Afro-Latino, Afro-European, Afro-Carribean, etc.”

    Thank you for posting that. One of my best friends in high school was black but traced is ancestry back to France. It bothered him whenever someone referred to him as “African-American”.

    On the flip-side, one of my son’s best friends in high school was born in America, but both of his parents were born and raised in Africa. He could legitimately be called “African-American”, but probably never will be since all of them are caucasian.

    Just goes to show, you can’t judge a book by its cover… or a person by their color.

    • Luke Visconti

      Yes and no. I acknowledge that you posted your comment with positive sincerity; however, I agree with your first point, but not the second. “African-American” refers to descendants of enslaved Black people. The reason we use an entire continent instead of a country (e.g., “Italian-American”) is because slave masters purposefully obliterated tribal ancestry, language and family units in order to destroy the spirit of the people they enslaved, thereby making it impossible for their descendants to trace their history prior to being born into slavery. This was all in an effort to prevent enslaved people from organizing and revolting their bondage. Enforcing illiteracy of enslaved people (by law) and obliterating any sense of history or familial ties was a tradition in our country for more than 100 years (predating the Revolution)—which is why our African-American fellow citizens cannot trace their heritage past the continent.

      It is important to emphasize this part of American history, and this is why America is unique in having people who are African-American. Please read Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom for a personal insight into this. You’ll also learn the bone-chilling origin of the common phrase “sold down the river.”

      Post-slavery immigrants from a country in Africa can identify themselves by where they came from—country and, if appropriate, tribe. If they wish, they may refer to themselves by their hyphenated identity—”Sudanese-American,” for example. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • The most articulate speakers I’ve heard (and by articulate I mean they pronounce words correctly, speak very clearly, and speak in complete sentences with well-formed thoughts) just happen to have been Black but I know not to compliment them with the word articulate because of the negative connotation. So, instead I either say nothing or find some other way to give a compliment about it. Since I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and won many awards for it, I very much appreciate articulate speakers. It’s what I strive to do. It’s too bad that I can compliment a White person on being articulate but not a Black person – but I understand and give deference to the difference.

    • Lee, why not just compliment the speaker on the content of their presentation. Afterall, isn’t that the point – not how articulate the speaker was but how effective the presentation.

      • EMM, you can compliment a speaker on different aspects of their presentation not just on how effective you perceive the presentation to have been. If I believe a speaker was articulate in making their presentation or had excellent vocal variety or impressive gestures and body language or made good use of personal anecdotes and so on, in other words whatever impressed me about their presentation, I let them know about it, given the opportunity.

    • Charity Dell

      Most black speakers HAVE to be “more articulate” than the average American speaker, or they won’t be allowed
      to speak/present. Most Americans are NOT that articulate because most Americans–of any ethnic group–have poor grammar and usage skills and cannot utilize Standard American English very well. I’ve taught ESL and frankly, MOST Americans need ESL due to several factors:
      1. No correction from parents and teachers.
      2. We teachers are typically told NOT to verbally
      correct a student’s language, but instead “model it for them.” Now, this same student WILL be verbally corrected in any OTHER world language class–but English teachers aren’t “supposed to correct the students.”
      3. Today’s students are typically RESISTANT to correction–even gentle correction!–and RESISTANT
      to following rules and/or directions about ANYTHING.
      Their parents/caregivers have set them up for this

      So when these students reach adulthood and enter the
      workplace, they are typically INARTICULATE and RESISTANT TO CORRECTION–and they don’t or won’t FOLLOW ANY DIRECTIVES OR ACCEPT CORRECTION.

      • Linden Gibson

        Charity, you are so spot-on. I work in a high school in a Southern US city, and only rarely meet ANY student who speaks in an articulate manner. If we care about comprehensible communication and literacy, we really need to start correcting our young, from birth on, as well as modeling good speech as parents (and grandparents). I do not hesitate to correct my grandkids, all 8 of them, who are among themselves members of three ethnicities. Good speech for all!

    • Lee, if you compliment a Black person on their articulation in the context of comparing them to other business professionals that also give presentations and not to the Black community, the above is not applying to you. If my Black best friend has a child and names it something I genuinely find beautiful and I tell her that, it is not the same thing as a stranger saying “wow, your child has such an ethnic name.”

      When you say, “since I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and won many awards for it, I very much appreciate articulate speakers. It’s what I strive to do. It’s too bad that I can compliment a White person on being articulate but not a Black person,” you’re truly missing the point. You are a rare example of a person that would not be left-handedly commenting on the idea that the larger part of the black community fails to speak correctly, but that this individual speaks more articulately than the average public speaker. If you made this obvious- that your comment was not a comparison to the black community but to other businessmen- then it would be perfectly within context to comment on someone’s articulation, keeping in mind that this person has probably dealt with many associates that comment similarly with racial motivations.

  • This political correctness bullshit is really hitting an all time high. Be considerate to others as long as you are able to address any matter with anyone. You’ll find out that being too considerate will rob you your honesty. Most minority members, myself incluided, are not gonna start crying if a white person says something untintentionally racist. And for you minority members, don’t be resentful, that just prevents you from reaching your full potential, if you are too sensitive about your racial/ethnical background you are discriminating yourself. And NO, i did not vote for Obama. You figure out why

    • Luke Visconti

      I think Paula Deen and the Duck Dynasty people are dramatic, but illustrative, examples of what happens to people who won’t/don’t evolve. How’s your career going, smiley? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

    • Thank you for your honesty Jorge! It is important to show respect when interacting with ANYONE. Let’s be real, everyone notices differences in others. Of course we notice if someone is black or white or has long hair, or is tall, short, skinny or round. (Being “color blind” is really impossible) Everyone is diverse in some sort of way. It is not necessary to be ultra-sensitive about someone’s race because that implies an assumption that they are uncomfortable with it. Treat everyone with respect and use your best judgement on your word choice when communicating with someone (ANYONE). When you are respectable, your words will show that. If your respectful words offends someone, they are overly senstive.

      Individuals that would actually use the above 5 phrases (especially “you people’) in the negative context have questionable character and that is not something that can be changed with a article like this. I guess I would not view someone telling me I’m articulate as a negative either, only if it was said with negative undertones and in that case it would be coming from someone with questionable character.

      I am 30 years old and may have been raised somewhat sheltered (have not experienced many situations in which race was an issue), but I am not afraid to ask people about the things that make them different from me. Isn’t that part of celebrating diversity? I guess I am not politically correct in doing so. And I personally agree with you, Jorge – there is so much hype over race right now. The more attention we draw to negative things people are doing, the less people will work on the postive… How about this for an article title: “5 Encourging Statements to Use Everyday” to anyone of any race.

  • I disagree. If someone is offended, allow them to be offended! Calling someone “ultra sensitive” only dismisses the way that they feel. I am white and I only know first hand how it feels to be white. I learn what others experience through their stories, and words, and expression of feelings. If your intention is not to offend, why do you not want to know if the things you say are offensive? I

  • Lips go plllll.

    I forgot (rest of offensive comment edited out)

    Your IP address is

    Please stop posting your nonsense.

  • “You people” is never the right thing to say to anyone who belongs to any race, religion, ethnic group, gender, marital status or whatever.

  • Is is good to be perpetually indoctrinating an entire race that they are victims and the whole non-black world is effectively plotting against them at every turn? I think not. It programs people from an early age against self empowerment. I also don’t think that the flip side of the American indoctrination culture, also known as P.C. is fair or healthy, in that it’s constantly teaching every person of white identity that their race is somehow inherently evil. The fact is that most whites and their ancestors never owned slaves and don’t want to offend strangers or coworkers, regardless of their race. I think we need to recognize that people are just people, groups can be different and that’s okay…and move on.

    • Why are you clinging to your childish interpretation of our society- built on the propaganda of racist charlatans like Buchanan? The evidence in front of your nose tells you injustice is meted out by skin color, documented by every possible analysis of economic comparisons and a simple headcount of every position of power – political, corporate, military, law enforcement, clergy.

      I think you need to recognize that there is no average white man that would benefit by exchanging places with an average Black or Latino man.

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