Friday, May 23, 2008

tell black people they don't think of them as black

"White Oprah Winfrey"
(from the Mugcut Gallery
at Acting White)

Regular reader S, a self-identified black man, sent the following email, which he said I could reprint:

I have a question for Macon the White Guy—can you tell white folks to stop telling me they don’t see my blackness? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, in a way that I guess is supposed to be a compliment, “I don’t even notice that you’re black!” or, “You know, you don’t really seem black to me.” And “I don’t even see race. I’m colorblind.”

Sometimes white people pat me on the arm when they say this. It usually seems like they’re trying to reassure me of something.

The message I get is a different one from what I think they want to say. I think they want to say something to me about themselves, like how open-minded they supposedly are. But what I’m hearing is that old racism, as in, “You’re a credit to your race.” I feel like I’m being told that I’m better than other black people (which is actually, “better than the image I have in my head of black people.” And you’re going to tell me that you don’t even see race?!).

So my question: what do you think is going on in these white heads? And my first question too—can you tell white people to stop doing this? Then white people could be a credit to their race.

I think you told them better than I could, S, but okay, I’ll tell them too—all you white folks reading this blog, stop telling the black people you know that they don’t seem black to you, and/or that you don’t see their blackness. It’s embarrassing, for them and for you.

Telling black people that they don’t seem black to you is an insult to their racial group, and it says more about you than it does about that racial group. The second comment of this sort, that you don’t see race, is simply and obviously untrue—you’re saying you don’t see a black person’s blackness because that person is black.

T asked what’s going on in white folks’ heads when they say these things, and I think he’s pretty much answered his own question. They’re saying something that's more about themselves than about the person in front of them, projecting something from their white psyches onto that non-white person in front of them. That projected something is often an anxiety, or a fear, about how he or she is coming across to a person of another race.

So in a way, another common motivating feeling here is a good one—a desire to establish a good relationship with a person of a different race, based on an expressed willingness to treat that person the same as he or she would treat anyone else. Anyone else who’s white, that is.

And therein lies a problem with such comments—the message after all is, as T points out, that the non-white person being addressed is somehow different from other members of that group, and so somehow more like people outside that group, and more like an individual. Somehow, that is, like white people. So you can see where the path of this logic leads—it’s ultimately good for a black person to not seem black to a white person because white people are better than non-white people. This isn’t what the friendly white person is usually thinking consciously, but the unconscious bias that favors whiteness does emerge in such instances.

Another form of white projection usually going on here, and perhaps a more benign one, is the common white tendency to see other whites as individuals, instead of as “white people.” White people tend, of course, to be most comfortable with other white people, though again, they’re not seeing them as white people, in the sense that, say, black or Mexican American people see and understand each other as black or Mexican American people when they’re together.

So because white people see themselves and the other (white) people that they’re comfortable with as individuals, when they get to know a member of a non-white group that they normally think of in homogeneous, non-individualized terms, they want to see that person as an individual too. Thus, the common statement, “I don’t even see you as black,” can often also be translated as, “I’m getting to know you as an individual. You’re emerging that way from the black, group-based associations that you’d been conjuring up for me before. It’s nice to get to know you as you.”

Given the training into whiteness that white people go through, and the common tendency that such training induces to not even see one’s own whiteness most of the time, it’s not surprising that so many whites have such thoughts and feelings about non-whites that they’re getting to know as individuals.

What white folks should realize in all this is that they should keep such thoughts and feelings to themselves, instead of verbally projecting them onto non-white people. They should also work against two of their common, socially induced tendencies--to overlook whiteness, and to overemphasize non-whiteness.


  1. I've had this happen.

    "You know, you're really cool for a black chick."


  2. Macon, actually, this is:

    "tell black people they don't think of them as black"

    is more of a reflection of this:

    "(White people) are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it." - Baldwin

    The "I don't think of you as black" thing is the post-civil rights era lesson society has fed our White brothers and sisters. MLK's "content of (individual) character" vs. color-of-skin generalization/stereotypes, that's the lesson Whites have taken away from those years: that being colorblind means I can see someone as an individual and can't see them as Black.

    The idea is that there is something wrong with being "Black." That's definitely the vibe describe by S.

    In a weird way, that is the lesson Whites were taught or, more precisely, the lesson Whites felt they had to learn.

    For years, White Americans had associated Black with all sorts of bad things, in very explicit terms. So, it seem(ed) like the rational thing to do is to just stop using the term as a way to avoid all the negative association.

    The same kind of simple thinking happens, in general, when merely mentioning race or "paying attention" to it is seen as an inherent negative.

    So, we're talking about quite a bit of socialization here which you pointed out, in still another sense, when you referred to the images (socially encoded messages) people conjure up in their heads.

  3. Thank you for the further clarification, nquest. I think you're right that the famous MLK line is another thread in the contemporary white psyche's perception of racial difference that influences the desire many have to not see blackness.

  4. Hey Folks, don't read anything into my drawing of Oprah, the dots in these type of drawings show lighting first, tone second (if at all). Dark people can appear light and vice-versa, depending on the angle/intensity of the light.

  5. Thanks for stopping by James, and for clarifying that your wonderful "Mugcuts" signify differently in different contexts, or lights (so to speak). I borrowed one before also, and in both cases, I mostly want them to suggest, in my blog's context, a projection of "white" beliefs, attitudes, presumptions and so on onto people who are not classified as white.

    I also appreciate your gracious consent (if I'm reading you right) to my borrowing of your work.

  6. Hey Macon, thanks for visiting my new blog and leaving the first comment! I've been reading yours tonight. Your journey into dissecting the underlying causes of white racism is amazing simply because it's coming from a white perspective.

    Anyway, regarding this article, I think a number of decent whites are just as afraid of rejection by blacks as the other way around, and they try in a sometimes clumsy way to find a common ground by blurting out these sort of things, or within 5 minutes of meeting you, talk about how they like jazz or rap or some black super athlete to prove that they aren't racist.

    I'm very understanding of human nature and have a nice sense of humor, so the only times I felt defensive or had the 'tighting of the gut' was when my radar picked up that the person was covertly hostile toward my race and needed to justify liking or accepting me by minimizing or trying to ignore my heritage. That's uncomfortable.

  7. I have been told that I am beautiful for a black woman. I have also had people make assumptions of my likes or dislikes based on my skin color. Whether or not people want to admit this or not these comments come froma place of associating black with somehow less than. When they say I don't see you as black or you don't talk like a black person they are trying to encode "white" values onto your black body thus elevating you from their conception of blackness. Even if it is done without malicious intent it is still racism and needs to be acknowledged as such.

  8. I have often heard white people say they don’t see color, that they just see people as individuals. However, as a white person, I am always conscious of color – especially my own whiteness. In America, we cannot separate race or skin color from our experiences. If I ignore a person’s ethnicity, or act as if it doesn’t exist, it seems that I am ignoring or devaluing a very personal part of his or her life. I like the comment Nquest made that race is seen as inherently negative, so we try to avoid all talk of race in our attempts to seem open-minded. But, we white people need to learn to talk – and more importantly listen – about racial issues in healthy, positive, constructive ways that bring about understanding, without being defensive or making excuses. We have a lot to learn about seeing the world from other perspectives instead of just our white privileged viewpoint.

  9. Speaking to Renee as well as others on this topic.

    Yeah, I had some white people going so far to say that I have Strong jaw structure, typically of the Germanic European type (meaning white, right?) or that I must have some white blood in me or that I cannot be 100% African. In other words, and you probably already said it, white people trying to find comfort within our blackness to point out white features in order for them to feel better around their non-white company.

    And adding to "you don't talk like a black person" yeah that drives me insane. I first remember hearing this notion of not sounding black whenever my mother would speak to me and my sisters and some white person eyes would be star-struck and often they would compliment my mother for speaking properly to me and my sisters. Weird. So check this, one time, I got a phone call for a job interview and when I showed up, the job recruiter was surprised that I was black and of course having a German last name probably didn't help to come to terms that I wasn't white.

  10. Once again, this blog is amazing. I have had this happen to me a million times and each time I try to explain why it pisses me off I immediately become the "angry black girl that is oversensitive about race" and get written off. I've been told that "I don't even look that or just black" which always is said in a complementary way as if I should be relieved. I don't know how achieving a colorblind society became a desirable goal because I want people to see my color. I'm proud of my heritage and it - as well as a dozen other factors - has had a considerable influence on who I am as a person. I think as a goal, getting rid of the stigmas that come with being colored (this includes whites) is a much more desirable end goal.

  11. Oprah is a sell=out.Working for a major comapny.Many people that are white do not like Oprah.I guess,I would look at Oprah's point of view.Money,Money,Money,New Jack City is what the fat b **** need.

  12. oprah is a house N***a

  13. Who are these "white people" you are referring to? Why am I always put in the same basket with these supposed "white brothers" of mine? I'm a blue-eyed, as-white-as-it-gets Greek who really doesn't see his relation to what I can only assume is your stereotypical notion of the "white guy" as portrayed by the average American football fan.

    But rest assured brothers I know you're not all covered in gold chains :)

  14. Thanks for stopping by, Luminus. The white people I'm referring to on this blog are those who do the common white things, or to put it another way, enact the common white tendencies, that these blog posts are mostly about. Please note this blog's subtitle. If you don't do something described in some of the posts, then those posts probably aren't about you. And by the way, the white tendencies that I describe here as common are commonly enacted by many different sorts of white people, not just American football fans.

  15. Macon, I think Luminus needs more than just a welcome and a direct answer to the "which white people" question.

    I think Luminus also needs an introduction to you, Macon "The WHITE Guy" so that he doesn't confuse you with THE [BLACK] BROTHERS with or w/o gold chains.

    I notice it every so often... You get random/drive-by posts from people who, apparently, jumped to the conclusion that since you're talking about race/racism/WHITE PEOPLE that you're not White. That's the feeling I got from Luminus' post. Plus my first post/response to you in this thread explained to you what I thought society fed "our"... "White brothers and sisters."

    Perhaps Luminus used that in his apparent conclusion jumping...

  16. Point taken, Nquest, thank you for the fill-in. It didn't occur to me that these drivers-by might not even realize that I'm writing from a white perspective, despite my profile/description in the upper-right of every post. I'll keep that in mind when others come along. The rub is, as I think I've said before, I have my doubts that these one-timers ever come back to read follow-ups to what they say (which always makes me wonder whether it's even worthwhile to reply, let alone post their half-formed, ill-informed comments).

  17. Hey i m still here. Seeing the date of the post before mine I wrongly assumed it would be some time before someone replied.

    Apologies for triggering Nquests insecurities and thank you for calling me ill-informed.

    [quote]The white people I'm referring to on this blog are those who do the common white things, or to put it another way, enact the common white...tendencies[/quote] the people who talk black and do all the things common black right?

    P.S. what does you being white or black have to do with anything? Nquest's assumption that i wrote my original post based on bias from knowledge of your race is frankly insulting. He seems to have a remarkable ease for jumping into conclusions for one accusing another of the same trait.

  18. Alex, if you're still here, you've been here for a long time! I assume you've changed your name from Luminus?

    I won't speak for Nquest.

    And there probably are common black tendencies, but as a white person, I'm not going to speak for or about those either. (However, I certainly do want to listen to non-white people speak and write and so on about common white tendencies -- since they bear the brunt of them, I believe they know much about them that I and many other white people don't know.)

    You originally asked why you have to be lumped in with other white people on this blog, and you asked that without, apparently, having paid attention to the blog's subtitle (and thus, having been "ill-informed"). As I basically said above, if a description and/or analysis of any particular common white tendency on this blog isn't one that you enact, then it isn't about you, and there's no reason for you to try to MAKE it about you.

    Also, you ask, "what does you being white or black have to do with anything?" I assumed from your reference to brothers "covered in gold chains" that you thought I was black -- was I wrong to read your comment that way? If that's not what you meant, then what were you talking about? Why did you throw that stereotype out there?

    Also, my being white has everything to do with this blog. I'm a thoroughly white American, a white insider. And privileged in many ways as a result. I think that makes it my responsibility to perceive, understand, and tell other white folks about common and egregious white tendencies.

    Finally, I have a question for you -- you seem more interested in writing here about black people than about white people. If so, what's up with that, given that you've come (and come back to) a blog called "stuff white people do"?

  19. "You originally asked why you have to be lumped in with other white people on this blog, and you asked that without, apparently, having paid attention to the blog's subtitle..."

    He also asked that without actually being lumped in with anybody. Nothing in your original commentary and certainly nothing in the comments before Luminous/Alex's initial comment referred to him at all. Talk about insecurities...

    Also, you ask, "what does you being white or black have to do with anything?" I assumed from your reference to brothers "covered in gold chains" that you thought I was black -- was I wrong to read your comment that way? If that's not what you meant, then what were you talking about? Why did you throw that stereotype out there?

    Yeah, and you forgot to ask Luminous/Alex what his (vicarious) whiteness -- "I'm a blue-eyed, as-white-as-it-gets Greek" -- had to do with anything.

    Re: remarkable ease...

    "I'm a blue-eyed, as-white-as-it-gets Greek who really doesn't see his relation to what I can only assume is your stereotypical notion of the "white guy" as portrayed by the average American football fan."

    As in really remarkable.

  20. I made a last post which either got lost or you chose not to publish.

    In either case I must add here that I do appreciate your civilized manner and I do not mind at all a bit of clever sarcasm :)

    But I have to say your friend Nquest isn't a very bright one as his/hers last post suggests.

    Anyways I do apologize if I ruined your day or something it wasn't my intention.

  21. Alex, it must've gotten lost; I didn't refuse any comments from you.

    You didn't ruin my day, and you're quite welcome to try again.

    However, please refrain from personal comments about anyone here. If you find a problem with anything said here, we'll all be better off if you explain your problem with those words, rather than whatever problem you have with any supposed qualities of people you've never even met.


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