Monday, October 6, 2008

whisper the word "black"

[this piece is cross-posted,
with a long and interesting comments thread,

at Racialicious]

I made the mistake of going to a local grocery store yesterday when it was very crowded, so I had to spend a long time in line, leaning on my grocery cart. I like to occupy myself at such moments by flipping through those parts of the tabloids that show celebrities at their worst, usually on a beach somewhere.

This time, though, I became engrossed by a conversation that I couldn't help overhearing, between two middle-aged white women who were right behind me in line. They didn't mind waiting, with melting frozen pizzas and ice cream, because they were glad to have run into each other.

They had some catching up to do because they hadn't seen each other in awhile, and I was especially intrigued by their discussion about a long-lost mutual friend.

"Right, Beth!" one of them said. "I haven't seen her in, oh, ten years, I'd say."

"Well, you'd be surprised," the other woman said. "She moved out to California."

"Yeah? So tell me about it. When did she move?"

"About five years ago. But the surprising part is that she married a black guy."

Now, as I write this, I realize that I don't know of a way to indicate whispering in written dialogue, without somehow saying outside of that dialogue that the speaker is doing so. Italics mean the opposite--they indicate various forms of emphasis. I can't think of a way to indicate, typographically, that this white woman had lowered her head a bit, and then lowered her voice, as she basically whispered the word "black."

"Oh," the other woman said. "Um. So?"

Good for you, I thought, as other woman's face reddened a bit.

"Well," she said, "that's just surprising."

"Why?" said the other woman. "A lot of people do that now."

"Yeah, well. I guess I just never thought that Beth would do that."

It was my turn to unload my cart, so I missed the rest of their catching-up. But I think that part of it was over anyway.

What interested me, of course, was that whispering by a white person of the word "black." I've heard white people do that many times, and I'm not fully sure why they do it. Not that all of those who do it necessarily do it for the same reason. Or reasons.

One probable reason that a lot of white people whisper the word "black" is that they think it's impolite to mention race. America is supposed to be "colorblind" now, and so, the common white thinking goes, "we" are not supposed to notice race, let alone point it out. Or even name it. So, when we do point it out, we we should do that . . . discreetly.

Other observers of American racial habits and customs have noticed this phenomenon, and I actually borrowed my post title from an article that I remember from a ways back, "Whispering Black (or Little White) Lies," by Molly Secours.

In her article, Secours offers her own anecdote about a similar moment:

While searching for real estate in Nashville, I encountered a pleasant and accommodating middle-aged women who showed me some property in the Belmont area. Although I wasn't interested in the place, she seemed eager to help me locate something more suited to my taste. She assured me that her partner managed many properties and felt confident he would have something available in the near future. She promised to have him call me as soon as possible.

Before we parted I inquired as to the location of another apartment that interested me. Leaning in close and confidential she advised me to be careful because although the area in which I was looking was close by, it was still "coming around." As my mind and heart raced, I tried to appear as though I didn't know what "coming around" meant.

Normally among whites this coded language is clearly understood with no explanation necessary. But I wanted to hear her say it. And she did. In a sweet maternal tone she warned me of the dangers of the neighborhood because there were still a lot of "blacks" living in the area. And she did what white people often do. She whispered the word "black" as if to protect a coveted secret.

But why whisper? Was she afraid someone would hear her who wasn't white? Was it because black people don't know they are black? Or was it to soften her insinuation that blacks are undesirable to live with? The only certainty is that she must have felt confident that I would understand and appreciate her warning.

Secours goes on to say that she's not sure why she did what she did next--she told a "white lie," by telling this white woman that she herself was black. The real-estate agent was, shall we say, quite literally appalled. She recovered quickly, and then promptly lost interest in helping Secours find a home.

I usually call out people I know on their racist remarks or jokes, however intentional or unintentional. I've also pointed out their whispering of the word "black." The latter even led to a discussion, once, about why white people do that, with my friend Bill. But I've yet to screw up the nerve to pretend that I'm black. I'm not even sure that's really a good idea.

My friend Bill would never consider himself a "racist." He doesn't agree with me that being raised as white in America pretty much makes a person a racist, unless they work to counteract that training. He did agree, though, that suddenly lowering his voice while saying that word was, as he put it, "weird" and "uncalled for."

He also called me recently to say that he doesn't do it anymore, and that he wanted to add something to our conversation about it: "I think people whisper or lower their voice with that word because they know at some level that what they're about to say is racist. But they want to say it anyway. It's like that PC thing, you know?"

"What PC thing?"

"PC, for 'politically correct.' I mean, when people say that, like [Bill lowered his voice again here, but in a louder, more masculine way] 'This may not be a very PC thing to say, but . . . '"

"Ah. That PC thing."

"Right, that one. I think people usually say 'PC' like that because they're about to say something they know is wrong, but they want to say it anyway."

"So you mean, lowering your voice when you said 'black' was the same thing?"

"Right. It was a way of, sort of, recognizing that what I was about to say was racist, but also that I wanted to go ahead and say it anyway."

"Huh. I think you're right about that, Bill."

Bill and I were on the phone. And suddenly no one was talking.

Someone had to say something, so I said, "But even though you said something 'racist,' you yourself . . . you're not a racist, are you Bill?"

"Me? No. I'm not a racist. Forget that!"

By the way, you can find out more about Molly Secours, who works as an activism-oriented writer, speaker, and filmmaker, at her web site. Secours also appeared in the following CNN segment, from an episode of Paula Zahn's show NOW that dealt with "Why Students Self-segregate":


  1. This reminds me of black people who also lower their voices when saying 'black'. The circumstances almost always involve 'mixed' company - that is, a situation where white people are present who may overhear our 'black' conversation. I've always been puzzled by this, but have never actually called out the other black person on it. I just make a point of saying 'black' or whatever black things we are talking about in a normal tone of voice. It's almost as if some black people fear that by saying 'black' in a tone that others can hear, then we will out ourselves as 'black' as well. But what frequently does happen is intense discomfort from white people when they realize that two black people are actually talking about race or blackness within earshot.

  2. How many black friends do you actually have? I'm just asking because many of them probably lower their voices when talking amoung themselves when referring to whites.
    People just don't seem to know HOW to talk about race these days.
    Not every issue involving race is "racist".
    When you call your friends out about being racist, is it effective? I find that bringing it up at a later time works better for me.

  3. It's great that you can have these convos with friends. I try the logic smackdown with my white trash friends but sometimes they just don't get it, especially when I mention the fact that also engage in cultural appropriation with using gang signs, dress, etc.

  4. Oh, God, I totally do that sometimes. I think it is partly embarrassment at recognizing race, *especially* as a group - I wouldn't lower my voice to say "Obama's black," but I might if I were describing a neighborhood - "That's a -black- neighborhood." It's not something I'm proud of.
    And I think even if white people *really* work at it, they're still not going to be non-racist. It's just that you can *mostly* mitigate your actions/words and eventually thoughts. But you're never off the hook.

  5. Yeah, I've done that, though I was already aware of it, so I usually don't. And I'm not even white, or black (Japanese American). My relatives do it, a lot atcually. Probably for the same reasons that white folks do it, mostly. It's interesting that black people do that too! Probably for different reasons. Of course.

  6. OMG thank you for posting this. This is something parents and friends from my hometown do all the time and it drives me mad. They also refer to low-income neighborhoods as "Black" neighborhoods (even though their white grandmother, and many other non-black people, reside there). And they unnecessarily identify the race of someone if they are telling a story and the person in the story is non-white (that's a good post topic, too). If you have to lower your voice to say it, it really shouldn't be said.

  7. caspie, I think that's interesting too, that people in other racial groups whisper the word "black." And yeah, going by the comments of "anonymous" and uglyblackjohn, those black people who do it clearly, or maybe often, whisper like that for reasons other than the reasons that white folks and others do it.

    Hi Phoebe! How's Holden these days? ;-) I think I agree with you, and thanks for the suggestion for another post. It makes sense that if you have to whisper something, it shouldn't be said. But I don't think that means that whites should never say the word "black"; that's too reminiscent of whites who say they're colorblind--"I never even notice that you're black!" (Ugh) Not that you meant that . . . In this case, most of the time, I think whites should just go ahead and say "black" normally, IF there's some good reason to point it out. But yeah, most of the time when they whisper black, they're pointing it out as somehow significant, in a negative way, so they shouldn't even say it. I think this is true of that moment in the checkout line, and with Secours' real-estate agent too.

    UBJ, in answer to your question about black friends (which you seem to realize is a loaded question), would I sound too much like Bill Clinton if I said, it depends on your definition of the word "'friend"? And on that of the word "acquaintance"?

    After I moved out of a racially mixed neighborhood at the age of ten into a very white suburb, I grew up without any non-white friends. I've moved around a lot since then, and I've had many black friends and acquaintances. To get to your stated reason for asking the question, I've never noticed if they whisper the word "black" amongst each other. Maybe they do because I'm around, so I don't hear it.

    You also asked:

    People just don't seem to know HOW to talk about race these days.
    Not every issue involving race is "racist".
    When you call your friends out about being racist, is it effective? I find that bringing it up at a later time works better for me.

    I agree that people often whisper the word because they just don't know how to talk about race these days--so they avoid the topic. So I'm tempted to give white folks who whisper the word "black," instead of speaking it out loud or not at all, a break. I'm tempted to say it's not a "racist" thing, and that the person doing it isn't a "racist."

    However, I think that in most cases, what prompts that suddenly lowered white voice at that moment is a set of associations with blackness that are, in fact, racist. For instance, it occurred to me this morning that another reason that accounts for this white whispering, at least sometimes, is the associations white people often still have between non-white people and pollution. Some part of them has bad associations with the word, or rather with the people it refers to. And those are "bad" feelings that maybe another part of the psyche doesn't want to have, or else they realize those bad associations (or even beliefs) aren't "PC," "so I'd better just whisper that word."

    Anyway, I'm not a psychologist, but I do know that what's going on in white minds at such moments is varied, and often complicated. And often racist too, because it's the result of ongoing, widely circulating racist ideas, associations, and so on. And whether the white whisperer can also be fairly called a "racist" depends, actually, on your definition of the word "racist."

    Regarding that loaded word, I don't think a person has to be a member of the KKK to be a racist (and you probably don't either). I think American race relations, and racist institutions, would improve if more white folks would just admit (as Molly Secours does in the almost surreal video that I posted here) that thanks to their having been raised in this society, they very likely are "racists." So what I mean is that I don't think the hardcore racists should be allowed to keep the word--"racist"--that they've hijacked. All, or maybe most, white people should own up to it.

    Finally, you asked about how things go when I call out my friends on their being racist. I actually don't usually tell friends and acquaintances that they themselves "are racists." Like Jay Smooth, I think it's more effective to point out racist words or actions, instead of labeling racist people--to focus on what people "do," rather than what they "are." I only do anything like the latter with close friends and family members. Like Bill, who I was almost kidding in that conversation I quoted at the end of this post. He knows where I'm coming from.

    So finally, yes, it does seem like a good idea to wait until later. I often speak up at the moment too, and although it's awkward, and some people even walk away, it also goes okay in most cases, because I focus on what they did, rather than what they are.

  8. Heck, some white people don't even whisper the word 'black'; some just mouth it, especially if they are making negative comments. They are still afraid someone will overhear them if they only lower their voice. This behavior usually happens in a very public area, like a restaurant, and is accompanied by furtive glances around them to see if anyone looks offended. I've had this happen several times around me; white people instantly feel safe saying such things around other whites. At first, being a quiet, introverted person, I would just feel embarrassed, hoping my silence might radiate distaste to the speaker. I don't think that works; there needs to be some way to yank the safeness out from under the speaker and transfer the embarrassment to them for saying such things.

  9. They also freak out when I don't whisper it. They look around to see if there are any Black people listening.

    I think they whisper it to indicate that they really want to say the n-word! They used to whisper that and they have transferred it the whispering over to Black.

  10. People also do this with the word "Mexican," as though it's a slur.

  11. Macon, thanks for answering my question(s) at great length (could've been a separate post in itself).
    I'm from the suburbs in Southern California and have moved to the (almost) antebellum South. Race was never an issue for me at home. Here in Texas, it's terrible. There is just so much baggage from segregation.
    It's funny that in this town (and many others), I'm more socially conditioned to "White Culture". I just thought that it was normal.
    It is kind of funny when a white person talks to me and they have to say "black" in any sentence. They don't know if it's okay to say.
    The thing is, many bloggers talk about resisting racism - but what they really mean is resist "White Racism". All others are just reactions to the "The Man".
    I appreciate your blog and the effort you make in gaining a better understanding.

  12. Macon D, as soon as I read the title I immediately thought about that Molly Secours article. I read it a couple of years ago.

    She was battling cancer. I hope she is doing well.

    This reminds me of black people who also lower their voices when saying 'black'.

    anonymous, we also sign. We'll point to our own skin, when non-white folks are around.

  13. Paula Zahn's show was horrible.

    As far as the whispering thing, I used to believe that it was racist of White ppl to whisper non-WASP racial identifiers because perhaps they felt there was something wrong with being a member of that group. I realized I was wrong when I learned of my habit of whispering.

    Behavior like that does prove that America is still not ready to tackle race. But we also have to admit that referring to racial identifiers does gain one's attention.

  14. Well, Macon, I know many Whites that do that. I always ask why. Most say that if "they" hear, they'll get angry. I have no idea where they get that.

    When I have discussions about race, which I have no inhibitions in doing, and always done with respect, I use the word "Black" like I use the word "White". Always in a normal way, not loud, not concealing either.

    Is it disrespectful if you use the word "Black" to refer to people of color? I do not consider using the word "White" to refer to my color in any conversation as offensive. I would be a bit disappointed if I was called a "cracker", like a Black man would if I use the "n" word to refer to him.

    Or maybe it's just a form of ignorance that they were taught. Yeah, that's the ticket!


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code