Wednesday, December 16, 2009

wonder how to talk to black people

Bruce A. Jacobs is an author and speaker who blogs at "Alias Bruce." Jacobs wrote the recently revised book, Race Manners for the 21st Century (excerpted awhile back here). Jacobs has spoken at universities, churches, and community gatherings, and appeared on C-SPAN, NPR, Pacifica, and other radio and television shows. Jacobs writes at his blog that he's a Harvard graduate, a widely-published poet, a drummer, an "almost-competent saxophonist, and an irretrievably fanatical fisherman."

The video below is the first in a series by Jacobs (his YouTube channel is here).  Apparently the series will offer advice on the topic of his book, "race manners." I transcribed the video below for those who can't access it. 

Okay, you’re not black, and you want to ask somebody who is black what they think about something. Or, maybe you want to tell them what you think about something. Maybe something they said, or something you saw them do that you’re curious about. And like I said, they’re black, and you’re not. Which doesn’t matter.

Except, it does matter. Because you want to be able to treat it like it doesn’t matter when it doesn’t matter. But at those times when it does matter, like let’s say you want to ask them, “What do you mean that white guy had no right to say that? What’s up with that?” Let’s say you want to ask them that, right?

At those times when race does matter in the conversation, you want to be able to treat it like it matters, without acting like a racist.

So what are you supposed to do?

Rule Number One: If you’re asking a black person what they think, or if you’re telling them what you think about something they think or something they did, always address them with the word “you.”

Y-O-U, singular, as in “you, the person here, who I’m talking with right now.”

That way, no matter what you ask them about -- the white guy they’re irritated with, some racial thing you saw on the news, your relative who loves black music but doesn’t like black people -- you’re not treating them like they’re the ambassador for black people. You’re just treating them like Carla, or Kevin, or Karen, this person you know who’s black, who has their own opinion that you want to know about.

When you address a person that way, they know you want to talk to them, the person who’s there in the room with you. And then they’ve got a great reason to want to talk with you, about what you want to talk about, or about what they want to talk about, which is what you want. 

But if you address them the other way, they know you don’t want to talk to them. You may like them, you may respect them, you may be good friends for them. But at the moment, you’re using them as the mouthpiece for a whole bunch of black folks. And they know it, and they don’t like it. In which case, they’re likely not going to want to talk to you, except maybe to tell you something that you don’t want to hear.

What you want is for them to know that you want to know about them.

And here’s the thing -- what they tell you might come partly from their being black, but it will be them talking to you as a person who’s black, not blackness talking to you through a person. They need to know that you know the difference.

And once they know that you want to have this conversation with them -- I mean with them -- they’re probably going to want to have it with you. Unless of course, they don’t, but then it will be for some other reason, not because you did it wrong. 

By the way, everything I just said, replace the word black with white, or brown, or gay, or Muslim, or Republican, or any other group, and it’s the same rule.


  1. exactly. That is very good (and simple) advice. I've felt really offended when people asked me how "we Arabs" (I'm not Arab) or "we Muslims" or "we Indians" or "we Deaf people" feel about this issie or that. I can't speak for a whole fucking group, but I can speak for MYSELF.

  2. You'd think this aspect was pure common sense, right?


    I don't speak for the following:

    Black women
    Black people
    Mixed people
    Mothers of sons
    Wives of Black men
    Light-skinned Black people
    Light-skinned Bougie Black People
    (Fill in the Blank)

  3. I always find myself specifying that I don't speak for all atheists, or all gay people, or all disabled people.

    Not making it about one person's feelings puts any minority in an awkward position, like they have to somehow be the ambassador for everyone who shares their label.

  4. Why not ask blacks what it's like to be white? We western raised blacks live among them, with them, work alongside them, watch their movies, read their blogs... And they are our fellow humans, 99.9 % genetically similar, if you allow even .1% for that variation called skin color.

    I get the positive part of this video: to get the on-their-way-from-old-racism-behavior whites a little further. But maybe the point isn't to ask your black friend, but to not ask your black friend sh*t about black folks that you won't also ask your non-black friends.

  5. >> "Why not ask blacks what it's like to be white?"

    Requisite plug for RVCBard's Conversations with Anne Hathaway


    I think that the overall topic of this post--"wonder how to talk to POC"--really hits at one of the ironies/hypocrisies deep in the white, especially white liberal mindset. And yes, even though the theme of the post is about how we should treat people as specific individuals I think it is fair to speak of a "white mindset" here.

    WP, especially 'I don't see color' WP, are quite fond of the line "I just treat people like people." Well, that is a problematic attitude in and of itself, which is the point that POC and white allies usually make in response to that attitude (essentially, "the world sees color, so you better, too") but as the video and the comments point out, it's not actually true. I think we often let this part of it slide in an attempt to emphasize the former.

    And on the flip side of things, there are times when I really, really wish I could speak for all WP. Don't get me wrong, I can be an racist, classist, Americentric dirtbag, and there are certainly WP who would be better racial PR than me, but...I'm at least a little better than average.

  6. (I really like this blog, BTW.)

    This is so funny, it would never occur to me to ask someone "So, what do [insert race/ethnicity of OP] people think about XYZ?"

    However, I would ask someone what they think about XYZ because (1) I know them and care what they think and sometimes, particularly if XYZ has to do with race (2) to see how their ethnicity informs their opinion.

  7. this could be a primer for any minority practically. how to talk to brown people. how to talk to gay people. how to talk to women people. etc. sad that we need this, but some people need rules to feel safe i guess.

    one nitpicky thing: please don't use "wanna" when transcribing these videos. it's "want to." yes, i understand it sounds like "wanna," but it just grates on this english major's delicate sensibilities. and frankly, it feels a bit disrespectful. (and in the future, as an offer of good faith, i'll promise to capitalize appropriately.)

  8. Rosa-
    1) He didn't say "want to" he said "wanna". And that's ok.
    2) As an English major surely you're familiar with dialect?

  9. Cloudy: Actually, listen again. He says "want to." It's a soft "t," but it's there.

    I agree with Rosa. Transcribing "wanna" for someone who says "want to," someone whose accent perhaps doesn't accentuate the "t"s in "want to" as much as other accents, also strikes me as a curious and not entirely unproblematic choice. That's not to say that saying "wanna" is problematic, because it's not. There are all kinds of dialects, accents, and registers in which people express themselves in English, and I have no interest in privileging one over the other. However, I also recognize that such an approach to dialects, accents, and registers is far from universal, and there are plenty of people who might very well read "wanna" as an indication that the speaker is not to be taken seriously. This is not an attitude I'd like to encourage, but it's certainly one we know exists, so why provide a transcript that appears to indicate that the speaker is alternating between different registers of formality when that's not actually the case?

  10. BlueRidge- The first time I listened to this I was at work and had the sound down, it does sound more like "want to", he just talks fast. I do sometimes take issue with people "fixing" the sheech of others when transcribing it, but I see what you mean about it being done for others.

  11. Tammi - actually, it's less than a one percent difference. It's no difference. The difference is which genes are on and off, but we all have the same genes in our bodies.

    Your points still stand though. :)

  12. This is so true. Second person plural is only really appropriate for referring to small groups of individuals, not whole categories of people. This is just basic politeness, really, and it's a shame it is used problematically with regards to racism, gender, ableism, etc. as posters above have said.

    I am comfortable asking somebody what "you people" or "you folks" think of something - but only if the "you people" is the person I'm speaking to and specific people they're in contact with. I can speak for my-roommates-and-myself or my-siblings-and-myself or the-other-club-officers-and-myself, and can ask others to speak for groups of this sort.

  13. Great Post.

    I have a good friend who is Pakistani, and when he first came to the school where I work in England, he was the first person with an Indian (as in continent) style accent.

    His English is impeccable, but that accent made a highly educated, but nevertheless stupid, teacher talk to him VERRYYY SLOWWWLLLYYY, and he used his hands quite a lot.

    Now, My friend is a very charming and clever man, with a bent for comedy and simply could not resist playing the simple Indian beggarman back to him, even putting his hands together and swaying his head for effect.

    After the conversation He asked me "Who is THAT tosser" proving his understanding of proper English.

  14. Rosa, BlueRidge and Cloudy,

    I wrote to Bruce Jacobs awhile ago to ask which he prefers in the transcription, "wanna" or "want to." He recently wrote back (after a delay due to email issues) and said that he prefers the latter, so I edited the transcript. Thank you for raising this concern.

  15. Ugh, I find this to be extremely true. I hate it when there are awkward moment with some of my friends of "a lighter hue" when talking about black people in my presence. They try to be too PC with every statement. My idea is that if one cannot feel comfortable about talking about race to others, how can we ever combat racism?

  16. dali so true, the problem is that most white people know that many people of color are extremely sensitive about color, so you never know when someone is going to take offence. your white frinds probably don't want to treat you like your different, but they don't want you to be mad at them or think their racist. you should tell your white friends that race isn't a sensitive issue for you, they don't have to be afraid of upsetting you because you don't have an inferiority complex and they will certainly stop handeling you with kid gloves.

  17. wow that s* just happen in america. Are majority of white people in america as stuck up as that? (it looks like psychology issues, i think they have to deal with their history or something :/) Here in France it's not a big deal o_o (fortunately :/). I don't even want to know how you flirt :/

  18. Wow, what an interesting and true video. It does take both sides to recognize and realize that you have to see people as an individual and not an ambassador for your entire race because even people within a race can have varying opinions on a certain subject and don't all act or think the same way. So many times I get annoyed when people treat me that way, and now I get it, but then again, they probably just don't realize how they're wording their sentences. We can tell ourselves we don't generalize about people, but to a certain extent it's inevitable. What we can control though is how we think and treat people after we get to know them personally.


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