Author’s note: I first published this post in October, 2011. I am reposting and updating it now to coincide with current events because I think it’s more relevant than ever. If you’re a white person who’s hopped on the “I’m just gonna shut up and listen” train, this is one perspective you should hear.
Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy talking about myself, in real life or on the internets, so enjoy this while it lasts.
I labeled this as a rant, but I’m not entirely sure it qualifies as one. It’s actually something that I just need to get off my chest, which tends to be the origin of most of my blatherings on this site. Let’s get right to it. Those of you who know me in the non-internet world, I want to make something clear that I probably never have until now. When you say to me, “You’re the whitest black guy I know”, it really fucking pisses me off, whether you say it in jest or not. I can’t stand when people say that shit to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that over the years, but I’ll say dozens and that won’t be inaccurate. I’ve gotten it from both white and black people, but mostly white people. Allow me to explain why I’ve decided enough is enough.
I called someone out at work recently* (a white guy) when I overheard him and another dude (a black guy) agreeing that Lil Wayne was the best rapper alive. I politely reminded him that Eminem was, in fact, still alive, and released a fantastic album just last year. The white guy’s reaction to their opinion being challenged was not to engage in a debate over who was right, but to say, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, “What do you now about rap? You’re the whitest black guy I know. Stick to movies.” I think that was the last straw, and I didn’t realize it until I got home that night and thought about just how ignorant that statement was, and how offensive similar statements have been throughout my life.
I wasn’t bothered by the fact that a white guy was dismissive of my opinion. After all, the fact is that white people represent the vast majority of rap artists’ paying customers, despite the fact that most rappers are black. No, my problem was this guy’s assumption that because my personality wasn’t “black” enough for him, I obviously couldn’t speak to who the best rapper alive might be.
I’m not easily offended, and when I am, I don’t typically show it outwardly. I’m not afraid to stand up for myself, and I don’t take a lot of shit from people, but I’m also not really confrontational, mostly because I don’t like the awkward aftermath and drama that usually follows. I’m very much in control of my emotions, so if I lash out, it’s for good reason. I’ve never yelled at anybody who’s called me white, or anybody who’s called me the whitest black guy they know, but I think I might start to in the near future, because when I really started to think about what that implies from the people saying it, it seems right that I should be offended.
Let’s be clear. I’m half-black and half-white. My mom is white, my dad is black. If I’m ever asked on an official document what my ethnicity is, I always put down “black.” Because no matter how I speak or behave, if you just look at me, I can’t really say I’m Caucasian now, can I? And I’m sure as shit not gonna say I’m brown or list myself under “Other”. So, just as we call Tiger Woods black, just as we call Derek Jeter black, and just as we call Barack Obama black, I too am black. Yes, my skin is literally brown, but “brown” isn’t a race of people. Mexicans aren’t brown, they’re Mexicans. Or Hispanic. Or Latino (do you know the difference between Hispanic and Latino?). Asians aren’t “yellow” (neither is their skin, by the way), they’re Asian. Ya get me?
SIDEBAR: I’m also not “African-American”, thank you very much. That’s politically correct bullshit from white lefties who think calling a black person “black” is somehow inappropriate. Why don’t you let each individual decide what offends them instead of imposing your overly sensitive sensibilities on an entire culture? I know some people don’t like it, but words have meanings. I’m not African-American any more than my white friends are European-American (Seriously, why don’t we call white people that if everyone else has to be broadly identified by their ancestry? Is that racist? YOU DECIDE.). If I have to go back more than 5 generations to find a real African in my ancestry, I’m not African anything.
What was I saying again? Oh yeah…
Yes, nearly all of my close friends are white, and yes, I grew up around mostly white kids. I went to a Catholic school from 1st to 8th grade where maybe 4 of the kids in my 30-kid class were minorities. I’m not religious anymore, but I’ll always be grateful for the values that school and those people helped instill in me. Yes, the majority of women I’m attracted to are white or lighter skinned. Yes, my white mother was the only parent I had at home for most of my life, and yes, my white mother’s side of my family is basically all I’ve known my entire life. I’m not ignorant enough to say that those things didn’t shape my personality, interests or how I’ve presented myself over the years. At the same time, I’m neither proud of nor ashamed of these things. As they say, it is what it is. I’m not defined by these things.
Despite my background, throughout my life I’ve experienced uncomfortable or outright discriminatory encounters with white people that could only be because of the color of my skin and the assumptions people have made because of it. And that happens to this day. And most of the time it’s not even anything spoken. It’s the looks I get from some people that tell me all about what they’re thinking. One of the unique things you deal with being a minority surrounded by white people is that once they’re comfortable around you, many of them reach a point where they start to ask you things or say things to you that they’ve clearly always wanted to ask or say to other black people. You become the representative of everyone who looks like you. On the flipside, if you think I AM white just because of the people around me, you don’t know shit about the day-to-day experiences that make it quite obvious I am not. And that’s something black people don’t understand when they accuse another black person of being too white, or to the extreme, call them an “uncle tom” (which I have not been called – not to may face anyway).
I hate the term “microaggressions”, but it’s an accurate word to describe what people like me frequently experience; rudeness or “polite racism” that is unintentional. Very rarely are things said to me that are way out of line, but because a lot of white people feel they have to act differently around other races, some things that get said innocently can come across as incredibly off-putting. And they probably don’t realize they’ve said something wrong because I’m not the type to make a big deal out of it in the moment. So perhaps I bear some of the blame for not educating my friends over the years. I’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities to do so.
For example, I don’t know many times I’ve had someone say to me, “That’s what you guys like, right?” You guys meaning black people. It’s like white people have jokes that they’ve wanted to tell a black person for years but have never had the right audience. Many, many, many times I have been that audience. I’ve heard big dick jokes, big lip jokes, jokes about black female physical features, and I let it slide because they’re usually meant as jokes in my favor. Part of me thinks Well why didn’t you correct those people?, but the other part thinks How many times would I have had to do that over the years? Is it really my duty to educate ignorance anytime I find it? At a certain point it’s your responsibility to not be ignorant.
What prompts people to say “You’re the whitest black guy I know” to me? If I had to guess based on experience, I’d say it’s primarily because of the way I speak, which is simultaneously understandable (to a point) and mystifying. I never spoke like most black people my age. I get that. It’s always been that way. But that’s because of my upbringing! It isn’t because I’m not really “black” or I’m hiding from it or ashamed in some way. I don’t use ethnic slang. I don’t use street lingo. When I go to shake someone’s hand, I opt for a regular old manly hand shake, not a juvenile 3-tiered, half-hug, 4-finger clutch greeting. I don’t listen to rap 100% of the time. Although I do love good rap and hip-hop, it’s probably 4th down the list of my favorite musical genres, after film scores, electronic music and…GASP, rock. I’m a black guy who loves John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Metallica, Coldplay, Nine Inch Nails and Above & Beyond more than I love Tupac or Lil Wayne. Big fucking deal. If you’re black and don’t know who any of those artists are, it doesn’t make me lame, it means you have narrow musical taste. In the end though, I think it all goes back to the way I speak. And here I was thinking that all of us are taught to speak proper English if we want to be taken seriously in life.
I do understand that in the vast majority of instances where people have said to me, “You’re the whitest black guy I know”, those people have been joking around or just messing with me, and that they didn’t mean offense by it. But what those people don’t understand is that kidding or not, there’s subtext in play. Kidding or not, you said it because of your own preconceived notion of what is and isn’t normal behavior for a “black” person. That reflects poorly on you, not me. When did speaking articulately, writing with accurate spelling, and using multi-syllabic words in everyday conversation become trademarked by white people? That’s where I take offense, and frankly, where all black people should take offense. Do you guys have a patent on proper English that I can look up? Is “dressing like a civilized adult” copyrighted by Whitey McWhiterson? Am I subject to an infringement lawsuit if the wrong white guy decides I’ve overstepped my boundaries as a black person?
I’m not prone to playing the race card and I hate when otherwise intelligent people do, but to me, “you’re the whitest black guy I know” is a racist statement. Don’t call me “white” because I can form two consecutive sentences that make sense. Don’t call me “white” because I notice when you’ve spelled something wrong, or because I know the difference between “their”, “there”‘ and “they’re”. No matter what color you are, it’s permissible to treat the English language with some respect. I dare say that should be the expectation of everybody in high school and above, regardless of color. And shame on any black person who chooses not to speak properly because they don’t want to appear “white”. Intelligent conversation is not a “white” thing. Being smart is not a “white” thing.
When you think of a black guy, do you imagine only the clichés of some random urban thug? A guy wearing a t-shirt 4 sizes too big, pants below his ass, long chains around his neck, walking with a limp even though there’s nothing wrong with his leg? Perhaps you imagine a guy with no job who smokes marijuana 7 days a week? Someone who’s been arrested 12 times? A drug dealer who drives a Cadillac with tinted windows, an expensive sound system, and 22″ chrome rims who is obnoxiously loud and quick to anger if challenged? If THAT is what you think black is, or should be, then it’s you who has a problem. YOU. Because guess what? There are millions of white, Latino and Asian kids who fit those descriptions, too. That kind of lifestyle favors no skin color. It’s determined by where you live, your own self-motivation, and who you choose to hang out with. Or, as an educated white person might call it: socioeconomics.
Look at this nigga!
I can debunk some of those clichéd descriptions with my own life story. I used to live in an area where that kind of thug/urban/saggy-pants lifestyle was available to me, even tempting from time to time. BUT, I actively chose not to hang out with those people. I grew up near downtown Framingham, Massachusetts, in an area that became increasingly and noticeably less white as I got older. Many of my neighbors were black and Latino kids, and that area now is almost entirely occupied by “undocumented immigrants”, including, from what I understand, my childhood home. Anyway, I didn’t hang out with the neighborhood kids a whole lot, but when my siblings and I did, it was mostly to play basketball or some other sport in the driveway or the local park.
I can remember one day in particular when I was, I wanna say 15, and it was me, my brother, a couple of Latino kids and a black kid all playing ball on the hoop we had in my driveway. For the most part, I’m the same person now as I was then as far my interests go, but at that time I was still very impressionable as to how I should dress and speak to fit in with the other kids. You know, things I don’t care one bit about now that are everyday concerns as a teenager. At one point during a game, I randomly called the black kid (who was at least 2 years younger than me) ‘nigga’. You know, one of those, “I didn’t foul you, nigga” type things. It was the first time in my life I’d ever used that word casually and unintentionally. It just came out of me. And the strangest thing happened. It was as though internally, I’d realized I had just reached the edge of a cliff, and I had a decision to make before I fell over it. I don’t know how, but even at that young age, I immediately realized that that wasn’t me and decided right then and there I’d never say it again in that context. And I haven’t in 20+ years since. Was I about to become one of those kids? No, this is not what I want. As is the case now, urban kids casually called each other ‘nigga’ all the time. Nobody around me cared, except it meant something to me. I knew instantly that I didn’t want to get comfortable using that word. Needless to say, it’s a decision I’m quite happy with to this day.
In fact, the word ‘nigga’ is thrown around even more casually today than it was in the mid-90’s. I’ve seen white girls calling other white girls ‘nigga’ on social media, which is about as ignorant as it gets. The grip that hip-hop culture has on white kids now has become even stronger. Or so it seems as an observer. I’m not 18 in 2020. Thank god. But that’s another rant for another day.
In the end, I suppose my simple thesis is that I don’t believe the color of your skin should define you. I think some other, more well-known people have said things to that effect over the years, too. Yet for far too many people, it seems it still does. That worries me. A lot of people just don’t care to stop and think about why they have these assumptions, so they just allow them to fester and be passed on and on and on amongst their peers and children. I don’t think race should determine your personality traits, or the way you dress, or what your interests are. Maybe that’s the silly closet liberal in me talking. I don’t deliberately not hang out with or befriend black people because it makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, I’m nobody’s “token black friend”, either. Maybe it’s your perception of what black is or ought to be that’s screwed up, not my behavior or the way I speak as a black man. Please consider that the next time you have the urge to call me white. Think before you speak. It’ll do you wonders.
The self-defense rests.
For the record, to this point in my life I can’t recall a single negative encounter I’ve ever had with a police officer. That’s probably because I’m a good driver and don’t get pulled over for stupid shit. I probably get pulled over once every five years. If that. I don’t put myself into situations where a bad experience with law enforcement might occur. I’ve never been detained or arrested. But I fully realize I’m incredibly lucky in that regard. By no means do I believe I’ve got some magic mojo that shields me from negative police attention. I could get pulled over tomorrow by the wrong asshole and not live to tell the tale. I am keenly aware of that. Also, my father was a career cop who retired as a police chief, so my inclination is to respect and admire the work cops have to do every day. I don’t hate cops. But make no mistake, I get as enraged as ANYBODY ELSE when they overstep their bounds, even more so when there are no repercussions for it. This post is meant to point out some other facets of life where white people need to be more aware of how they’re dealing with people other races. Frankly, it pisses me off that we still have to talk about this in 2020.