In 2008, you'd think the taboo subjects and phrases would be clearly outlined and understood by all when it comes to what is and is not acceptable to say to a Black colleague. But that's far from the case. Here are 10 things you never want to say to a Black coworker or boss.
You're so … articulate? Smart? Different? Yes, the speaker may intend a compliment, but what may be meant as praise instead comes across as being condescending. It implies the person being complimented is an exception to the rule and is exhibiting behavior atypical of others of his or her ethnic background.
"I haven't had it said to me, maybe I'm not articulate enough, but I've heard a number of Blacks say they've had it said to them … you're so articulate or you're so smart or intelligent," says Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, former director of diversity at Disney ABC Television Group. In her many years in the diversity industry, Fontenot-Jamerson has seen and heard it all. Some of it still makes her cringe.
"I feel like education and awareness is my mission, so I try to be kind when I check people to help them understand what they just said," she says. "I might make a joke to help them understand that it was a faux pas, and hopefully I have good enough relationships with them to have further conversations with them."
Danielle Robinson, director of diversity, talent and organizational design at Diageo, a wine, beer and spirits company, said she was amazed when she got this question from a colleague. But instead of getting angry, Robinson explained to her coworker why the question was inappropriate.
"There are a number of ways to respond. But I told the person they had no idea if they might be asking that question to someone suffering from a medical condition [such as] someone recovering from cancer treatment," she says. "I wound up giving this one woman a little lesson because you never know what the situation might be of the person you're asking a question."
3) "You" people
"I've heard this one several times," says Fontenot-Jamerson. Who exactly are "You people," and how do they differ from regular people? Use this poorly chosen phrase at your own risk.
4) Do you eat a lot of … (plug in the offending stereotype here)
Some stereotypes simply refuse to die. There's nothing wrong with natural curiosity about the ethnic eating habits of some of your coworkers. The problem lies in focusing on stereotypical Black fare such as fried chicken, watermelon, etc. It reveals the speaker has a very limited and narrow perception of Black culture and cuisine.
"One of my young relatives told me when they go out on interviews they may get queries about fried chicken and the stereotypes about the food that we like to eat," says Fontenot-Jamerson.
5) Why are you so angry?
This one is more often directed at Black males, thanks in large part to the media, which often portrays Black men as being angry and/or criminals.
6) Why are you acting white?
Consider this a relative of "You're so articulate." Why would exhibiting proper behavior, manners or dialect be categorized as acting white? If that's the case, what does it mean to act Black?
7) You don't sound Black over the phone.
What does Black sound like?
DiversityInc Partner and Cofounder Luke Visconti received a letter from a reader who was presented with this particular compliment. He responded, "What you are experiencing is the first instance of a person accepting another person who is outside of their 'tribe.' Although the words and the sentiment are insulting, the person expressing them is (usually) not consciously trying to insult you. In their backward and ignorant way, they are actually trying to give you a compliment."
This particular offense came to our attention directly from one of our readers, Beatriz Mallory, who wrote, "In a career of nearly 30 years, I've heard them all. I am both African American and Hispanic, so I get it from both sides, on top of being a female. In trying to recall the worst, I'd have to nominate this one. It is the unguarded question "YOU went to CORNELL? WOW!" The implication is that in their mind, someone like me isn't automatically worthy of such an accomplishment. I never express my annoyance."
10) The N-word
The ultimate faux pas. Just because you've seen repeats of Dave Chapelle's show where the word is used liberally, that doesn't give you--or anyone--license to make conversational use of the word. To read more on the debate, read Double Standard: Can You Use the N-Word? in the Jan./Feb. 2008 issue of DiversityInc.
And don't fall into the trap of thinking substituting an "A" for the "er" makes the word acceptable. Fontenot-Jamerson believes it's a word used far too casually among youths, both white and Black.
"The new generation uses the N-word very loosely [and] the white kids do it too," she says. "I've been in the company where the youngsters have been using the word because they don't understand the history that comes with it."
Like Fontenot-Jamerson, Robinson looks at each misspoken phrase as an opportunity to teach and educate. "A lot of the questions are usually out of ignorance or genuine curiosity. So I always look at opportunities like these as a chance to educate," says Robinson. "Instead of getting angry, you don't want them to make this mistake with someone else. There are ways to ask a question more inquisitively that won't offend."