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Unintentional but offensive — A Black person’s perspective

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One of the most off-putting questions I have ever been asked is, “Do you consider yourself to be Black?” To say that I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. The irony is that the question was asked in the midst of the individual communicating to me how much they detest racism and microaggressions. In response, I inquired why they would ask such a question. They proceeded to say, “I don’t consider you to be Black. I consider you to be Brown.” My struggle in the moment was that I knew that the individual meant no harm. They did not realize that they questioned my identity. I had to educate them, but that experience reminded me that people can say very offensive things with a good heart, however, their good intention does not make it any less offensive. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

In this blog, I discuss five common comments that Black people may find offensive. My aim is to give insight with the hope that it will inform future communications and interactions, not just in the workplace, but in any environment.

1.“I don’t see colour” or “I’m colour blind”

I have heard this one many times. Usually, it is said by an individual who wishes to convey that they are not racist or discriminatory. In truth, I find this statement can be patronizing. Everyone sees colour and, in any event, to not see that I am Black is to not see me; it is to not see who I am as a human being. We do not want our colour to be ignored; we simply do not want to be treated differently because of it.

2.“You speak so well”

Again, this is often a statement intended as a compliment. However, while that may be the true intent, the message that is actually communicated to a Black person is, “I am surprised that you speak so well.” It implies that you did not expect us to be as articulate as we are. This is particularly so for Black people of Caribbean descent. Why is our intellect such a surprise to so many people? I will not seek to answer that question; I will leave it to you as the reader to personally reflect on your own answer.

3.“All lives matter”

This has been a common statement in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and has proven quite controversial. I attribute the controversy to a potential lack of understanding. Some who counter with the statement, “all lives matter,” intend to communicate just that. However, it is offensive because it demonstrates an unwillingness or an inability to recognize what Black people have been through and how those experiences prompted the need to remind the world that our lives matter. We do not disagree that all lives do matter; however, all lives are not being disregarded – Black lives are being disregarded. I also think that some persons who are bothered by the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” are bothered because it is unsettling to expressly acknowledge Black lives. It is unsettling because it may not come naturally. That may not be because they are overtly racist, but historically, it is not a societal norm to openly acknowledge the validity of Black lives. This is indicative of a deeper routed, societal, and historical problem. Consider that for a moment.

4.“You are a strong Black woman”

This is a touchy one and I am not sure everyone will agree with me on this. Indeed, I am a strong Black woman, unapologetically so. However, why do I need an adjective to preface who I am? It almost suggests that it is an exception, when in fact, to be Black and to be a woman is to be strong.

5.“Racism doesn’t exist in Canada”

The existence of racism in Canada is a fact; it is not a subjective question based upon one’s beliefs or perceptions. When you debate its existence, while you may genuinely hold the view, what you are actually saying to persons who have experienced racism is, “I don’t consider your experience to be valid.” What you are saying is that your view, and your experience dictates another person’s reality. The fact that you have never seen or experienced racism may be an indication of your own privilege, but it is not determinative of its non-existence.

The above statements are sometimes made with the best intentions or are a result of a lack of awareness. However, irrespective of the intention, the potential impact is that they may offend. The takeaway from all of this is that it is not enough to say, “I didn’t mean it that way,” or, “I didn’t know.” We must educate ourselves and become more mindful of the things that we say and do. I owe that same responsibility to other marginalized groups. For some, this may cause difficulty in knowing how to communicate with Black counterparts because of the fear that you may unintentionally offend. That is a fair concern. You will not know or understand it all overnight. However, you can start by taking the time to understand our history, our culture, and our experience.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


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