Something strange happened while I was talking to a girl at work recently. I don’t really remember what the conversation was about, but at one point she made a comment about black people, and when she said the words “black people,” she whispered it. I am used to white people doing this because they don’t want to come across as being racist to other black people by identifying someone in a story as being black. It’s a very odd way to have a conversation, but what made this particularly strange to me is that the girl I was talking to is black.
I asked her why she did that and she said she didn’t want anyone to hear her. There are only three other black people who work on the floor that I work on and I am pretty sure she wasn’t worried about their racial sensibilities. What she was most likely worried about was ruffling the feathers of the overly sensitive older white women who surround her.
What makes conversations about race between two different races so peculiar is the awkward verbal appeasement, when one person goes way out of their way to prove that they aren’t racist. If you’ve ever overheard a white person change his or her vernacular and suddenly start using ebonics in front of black people or those same people trying to relate by indentifying the things in black culture that they enjoy then you can understand. I am sure it works both ways, but being white I’ve noticed it much more from my side of the isle.
I don’t know where this faux white politeness comes from but its not helping anything. It’s rooted in fear and insecurities about one’s self and it reeks of disrespect. It’s like perpetually identifying an Australian guy in America with Crocodile Dundee or Foster’s beer and telling him how much you enjoy it to get his approval.
At the same time there’s a double standard to our social mores. I’ve been called white boy by black people more times than I can count, but I couldn’t imagine referring to someone who is black as a “black boy.” I’ve been called a cracker, but I would never in million years call a black person by the “N” word. Apparently I am no exception to racial insecurities; I can’t even type the “N” word while referencing it. It might even be for the best, but seeing people act this way makes the racial barrier feel miles wide.
I grew up in Pulaski, Tenn., where the Ku Klux Klan was kind enough to burn crosses a mile from my house. I remember being a child and my aunt making me a jacket with my name printed on the front and a Confederate flag emblazoned across the back. It’s embarrassing to think of now. A lot of people who I grew up with that were very racist back then don’t want to be known as racists today (although some are still tragically dim). And now when they’re in presence of people who aren’t white, they’re polite, perhaps a bit too polite, slightly fearful, and definitely strange. Maybe this white awkwardness and over compensation is an olive branch and a bridge to the future, hopefully a less awkward future.