Nice racism is still racism
Black people know what you’re thinking about us — subtly but often blatantly — by the stupid things you say. Many of you will implore that we give you the benefit of the doubt, that your intentions are good, but I’m tired of treating you all like baby cotton balls. I’m also tired of walking away from conversations in which people ask me stupid, insensitive questions. Your curiosity is exhausting and telling.
Obviously, not all of you are racist. But some of you should learn not to say all the stupid things about people of color that are floating in your heads. You’re the only one who thinks your questions are innocent; everyone else just hears the “nice racism,” the assumptions dressed up as courtesy, the velvet-gloved interrogations.
Below are the questions that might in most situations be harmless — but with your shocked facial expressions and follow-up cross-examinations become the complete opposite.
“What’s your job title?”
We are not always the help. Some of us manage folks and work in elite professions, even though some of you work hard to keep us out of those roles.
So when you find out that my current partner is a retired special agent, you invariably ask if she worked in “administration” — that is, as a secretary. When she says she was a special agent (the kind that carries a gun), the shock is evident on your face. It means she went to the academy in Quantico, trained with other gun-carrying law enforcement, and didn’t allow White men to run her the fuck off like they often try to do at institutions with very few Black employees.
Being at the top seems to always be the last thing you suspect of us. Black people couldn’t have possibly earned one of the coveted top-tier spots meant for White men. Newsflash: We can fully achieve whatever we set our minds to if you would keep White supremacy out of our way.
“Call me, okay?”
Some of y’all know good and damned well you don’t want us to call you for help when we’re trying to move upward — because you’re afraid we will surpass you. You offer yourselves as mentors for our upward mobility, acting like you’re going to help us. But you often end up becoming our gatekeepers and progress blockers. Take my partner’s former contract buddy. He’d been retired from the FBI for 15 years, and until recently he had contracts with multiple federal agencies doing work that required a security clearance — the same work my partner had done. My partner asked him to help her get more work. He said he would, but he never did.
Recently he got offered a full-time job in D.C., working for another elite federal law enforcement bureau with few minorities within its ranks. Hence, the federal contract gigs he’d had reopened. When my partner asked him about recommending her for some of his better-paying old gigs, he told her he had to wait to ensure stuff worked out for him first. Surprise: That never happened.
When simple questions fail, a full-on interrogation begins
I’ll never forget the time my ex-husband and I looked to buy a bigger boat after moving to Florida some years ago.
The beach boat retailer gave us a look that suggested he thought we might be lost. He did the courtesy businessman greeting, but he examined us from head to toe as if unfamiliar with Black people buying boats from him. My ex-husband and I shared the traditional look, the one that says “this is getting ready to be some White-people bullshit,” and braced for the onslaught.
First, the boat retailer looked at our Jeep and noticed the old military vehicle registration sticker on the window and asked if either of us had served. My husband nodded. The guy wasn’t satisfied with the nod; he wanted to know who, so I pointed to my husband. He started to fume, his face flushed. He asked where he had been stationed, if he’d seen war, and all sorts of questions to test his knowledge.
My husband had on his Oklahoma University gear because it was football season, and he’s an OU alum. Still standing at our car, the owner continues his inquisition, proceeding to ask my husband if he attended OU.
Red face. Deep sighs. The boat retailer’s distressed soul was ready to intrude into our lives a little more. As the owner turned his back to show us what we came for, my husband and I gave each other an invisible high five for managing all the intrusive, unnecessary questions.
As we browsed the other boats, we got pummeled some more:
“Are you from here?” I told him we were from South Carolina.
“What kind of work do you do?” My husband politely shared he was a nurse manager for a residency program.
“Are you guys married?” We said yes. I have no clue why that was relevant for boat buying, but okay.
“What do you do?” I told him I’m a government contractor.
“Do you guys have kids?” My husband told him yes, but they are all grown.
He responds by telling us how young we look. He’s still flustered, but does his best to get back to the business of selling boats.
We were interested in one or two pontoons on the lot, so we hopped on board to look at the amenities. When we asked if we could take one of the used boats we were interested in buying out for a test drive — his place was on the water and had a dock — the owner told us we couldn’t because of some liability concern.
So I asked him if he expected us to buy a used boat without taking it out for a test drive. He shook his head as if it was out of his control, telling us he couldn’t take the risk. We could afford any boat on the lot we wanted, but he didn’t want to bet on Black. My husband and I looked at each other as if it was time to take our adventure off life support. We thanked him for his time, asked for a business card, shook his salty-ass hand, and left — then laughed the entire ride home.
Black excellence clearly shook this White man. He didn’t want to sell us a boat. He enjoyed denying us the opportunity of getting something he believed Black people shouldn’t access. He was pissed because we had done all the things society says we should do to chase America’s dreams. But we still weren’t good enough.
We shopped on Florida’s other coast for another boating retailer where there was more diversity and where the experience would be less hostile.
The way to stop asking us dumb questions is to befriend and interact with us, talk to us, break bread with us, and respect us as your equals. Sharing the Earth means sharing all spaces. Racism lives where segregation reigns — and together, they’re the water and soil where stupid questions flourish.