'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


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.

6 Tips for Inclusive Leadership

"We need to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ensure that we are leading inclusively," says Bryan Gingrich, Ph.D., SVP and Enterprise Diversity and Inclusion Leader at Wells Fargo.

By Alana Winns and Christian Carew

Bryan Gingrich, Ph.D., is Senior Vice President and Enterprise Diversity and Inclusion Leader at Wells Fargo. He designs and implements diversity and inclusion strategies.

Gingrich holds a doctoral degree in social cognitive psychology with specialty in stereotyping and prejudice.