Kindly Call Me Black
We have to stop promoting ‘color blindness’ as an alternative to racism
Call me Black. Seriously.
I have learned through observation that White people are afraid to use the word “black” to describe Black people. It also seems that they also don’t like talking about being White or being called White. This is true even among some of my closest White friends.
There is this fear, a look over the shoulder, a small pause or hesitation before they use the word Black in particular. Sometimes it’s said in a hushed whisper or sputtered out. Other times, I have to finish the sentence for my White friends and colleagues—even after I’ve asked directly if the person they are referencing is Black.
It took me some time and thought to understand why.
I don’t get offended when people call me Black any more than I get offended when someone calls me a woman or tall or a mother or a retired lawyer. Black to me is as neutral and as effective a way of identifying me as all these others. I don’t take the reference to my race as an insult in most contexts unless it is intended as such. It’s genuinely okay to call me Black in all other instances.
This resistance to using descriptive language around race seems to have come from the idea that color blindness is an effective way to end racism. White people assert repeatedly that they “don’t see color”—including their own. We have had 55 years to test this theory, and if the attempted murder of Jacob Blake and so many other Black bodies is any indication, this approach is not working.
So, why do White people insist on avoiding using racial descriptors? The issue is twofold. On one hand, the idea that Black is a racial slur is perhaps subconsciously premised on another, more sinister idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with being Black, that the word itself is a slur. The idea is that naming Blackness is offensive because being Black is offensive. Relatedly, we tend to use the word black to denote all manner of negative things—blacklist, black magic, blackball—in ways that intrinsically perpetuate this idea that even things or concepts that are black are bad.
Failing to use the word black to describe Black human beings because of this negative association gives power to racist ideology around what it is to be Black. The word black and, perhaps, all the evolving descriptors that have been historically used for Black people—African American, colored, negro, n*gger—strike many White people as derogatory de facto because they have been raised in a world that has both explicitly and implicitly taught them that being Black is bad. That’s where the hesitation comes from, and that’s why White people have to get comfortable talking about race and using the word Black in nonderogatory ways. Failing to do so upholds the racism underlying that understanding.
White people have opted to sublimate all references to race from the social sphere. But Black people never asked for this.
On the other hand, Whiteness, and the exclusion of people therefrom, has historically used race as a tool to oppress and marginalize. This understanding of how race has worked in our society leads White people to believe that they shouldn’t discuss or mention race at all. Our national history of “Whites only” segregation that was once prevalent and boldfaced has muddied the use of even neutral racial descriptors for many people.
Rather than challenging the underlying assumptions that led to this exclusionary and expressly racist use of race, White people have opted to sublimate all references to race from the social sphere. But Black people never asked for this. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that he wished his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, nowhere was it implied that we should ignore that skin. He asked that they not be judged by it—that’s different.
Ignoring race and trying to eradicate the use of race in any context has made Whiteness the default and the norm, which further marginalizes and oppresses people of color. It has allowed and continues to allow our society to ignore the differences that result from race—unless it is to promote ideas around the inferiority of Black people. When we promote color blindness, we do nothing to address the underlying causes of racism; instead, we collectively ignore its symptoms.
If the videos online of White people hurling racially based insults at Black people are any indication, for some White people the only time they acknowledge their race or the race of others is in a disparaging way, intended to be a trump card against Black people or other people of color when conflict arises. White people seem comfortable talking about “Black on Black” crime and the use of the legal welfare system by Black people in ways that promote the belief in the inherent inferiority of Black people.
White people who try to be anti-racist may wish to distance themselves from such uses. If the only time a White person hears or mentions being Black is as an insult or to deride or denigrate the race, this adds fuel to the belief that there is no safe or good way to acknowledge Blackness or Whiteness.
Race itself may be a myth, but the lived experiences that result from its existence are very real.
Further, acknowledging that Whiteness and race exist as concepts that underlie much of our world forces us to consider White privilege, and people generally aren’t eager to acknowledge their privileges. Doing so requires an implicit imperative to change or challenge the status quo. This can be uncomfortable, but if we truly want to live in an anti-racist world, as opposed to a color-blind one, we must learn to sit with the discomfort long enough to challenge its source.
Race itself may be a myth, but the lived experiences that result from its existence are very real. This is why it is so important to be comfortable with using language that acknowledges race, because until we do, we can’t properly discuss or address the structures that arise from the myth.
My lived experiences as a Black woman have been different from anyone who is not a Black woman, in ways that correlate directly with my race and my gender. If you can’t acknowledge that I’m a Black woman, you are by default unable to acknowledge the differences in our experiences. And you will be unable to work effectively to dismantle systems that result in those differences being inequitable.
We can’t be anti-racist and not acknowledge the lived experience of race. You can’t put up a sign in your yard or espouse or promote the idea that Black lives matter and not learn to be comfortable with using racial descriptors. If this is you, start practicing now.
Despite the way our world is structured and despite the work to be done to achieve anti-racism as a cultural norm, I love being Black. Believe me when I say this: It’s lit. I admit this without any reference to what it might be like to be any other race or without any suggested merit or hierarchy of Blackness with regard to any other race—although I think it’s quite clear that White people love being White, too, even if they are afraid to say so or don’t know how to express this without making it relative and hierarchical to other races.
To the extent that I have been able to reject anti-Black sentiment, I don’t carry within myself negative beliefs about being Black. That’s why it’s okay to call me Black. When you tell me you are color-blind or you stumble over the words because of your discomfort, I feel invisible and unseen.