Things White People Should Never Say to POC


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It may be the 21st century, but race relations in the United States are still not acceptable. Many of us hoped we would live in a prejudice-free utopia by now, but one look at the newspaper headlines will indicate that we still have a long way to go.

One way that those without melanin (i.e., white people) can try to participate constructively in improving race relations is by learning what not to say to people of color. You may be well-intended and coming from a sincere place, but certain words and phrases are unacceptable, no matter your intentions.

Here are a few that you should avoid if you don’t want to hurt feelings or step on toes, even inadvertently.

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“You don’t act Black.”

Suppose you are a melanin-deficient person and you’re having a pleasant discussion with a person of color about various matters. In that case, the most effective way to bring the conversation to a screeching halt is to tell the person of color with whom you are conversing that they don’t “act Black.” That’s also a very effective way of getting asked, “What do you mean by that?”

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“Can I touch your hair?”

You may be a person who finds afros and other such ethnic hairstyles to be beautiful and worthy of celebration. Be that as it may, nobody wants you to put your hands on them, no matter how well-intentioned you believe yourself to be. Even if you ask first, your good manners will not be appreciated. Instead, you will be considered someone who likes to pet people of color like you’re at the zoo or just some creepy weirdo who likes fondling people.

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“You’re so articulate.”

If you want to say this to a person of color, it may because the person is a voracious reader, the author of ten books and an English professor. Even with all that going on, do not tell the melanin-rich person in question that they’re articulate— it’s impossible for it to come out of your mouth in a way that doesn’t imply you believe most people of color can barely talk. Even if you don’t mean it that way, it comes out that way; so don’t say it.

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“I don’t see color.”

First of all, unless you have completely lost the gift of eyesight, you see color, including skin color, so this statement comes off as utterly disingenuous. The real problem with the statement is that it implies that skin color is an artificial social construct that you have evolved beyond, thereby implying that people of color shouldn’t see it either. In other words, it comes off as a declaration akin to “Just get over it,” even though people of color still deal with inequality and inequity every day.

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“All lives matter.”

Do you really need this one explained to you? The Black Lives Matter movement was created in response to various events that saw Black people killed by everyone from power-mad law enforcement officers to private citizens who wanted to be law enforcement officers but were too emotionally defective to pass the entrance exam. Saying “all lives matter” to someone who’s saying “Black lives matter” is not the “kumbaya” statement that will bring all parties together. In reality, it’s no different from saying, “No, Black lives don’t matter.”

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“I have a Black friend, so I’m not racist.”

You have a Black friend. Congratulations. We’re sorry to inform you that having a Black friend is not a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card relieving you of responsibility for ignorant statements you might utter. It is not a “pass.” It doesn’t work if you have a Black spouse, coworker, schoolmate or neighbor.

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“I’m not racist, but…”

Whatever you have to say, don’t say it if you must preface it with “I’m not racist, but…” It may indeed be true that you’re not racist, but once those four words have been invoked, you will at the very least be perceived as racist for whatever you intend to say next. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a room exclusively full of white people when you say it because it still translates to “I’m about to say something really racist.”

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“You’re too sensitive.”

Saying someone is too sensitive is never a good look, no matter who you’re talking to. You don’t know what they’ve been through in life and chances are, there are plenty of things people say that set you off too. But, if the subject that has earned your “too sensitive” descriptor is something like slavery, affirmative action, or reparations, just keep your mouth shut. Seriously, it’s not that hard. Just stop talking.

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“Why does everything have to be about race?”

If you are a Caucasian American and you ask why everything must be about race, you’re oblivious to history at best and a jerk at worst. If we lived in a society with true equality and a complete absence of prejudice, that would be one thing, but we don’t. Since we live in a world in which race is still absolutely an issue, everything will have to be about race to people who are on the receiving end of discrimination.

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“I have an Asian friend, so I’m not racist.”

If you’re speaking to a Black person and you feel compelled to utter this statement, it’s no better than saying you’re not racist because you have a Black friend. In some ways, it’s worse, because it shows that you view the world as consisting of two groups: white people and everyone else. Also, parenthetically, you probably don’t have a Black/Latino/Asian/Arab friend— what you’ve likely have is a Black/Latino/Asian/Arab coworker who is being civil to you in the workplace because their desk is next to yours.

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“You’re just playing the race card.”

Whatever you’re trying to get across by saying this, it will not come across as anything but profoundly ignorant and hateful. This statement implies that issues of race are imaginary. Also, “race card” is a term that was popularized by conservative talk radio hosts to pander to their audience of white people who don’t accept that people of color may have a valid issue with how they’re treated.

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“I voted for Obama, so I’m not racist.”

You may remember in the 2017 movie “Get Out” that the creepy white liberal father invoked his Obama votes as a way to ingratiate himself into the good favor of his daughter’s Black boyfriend. Well, there’s a reason that scene is in the movie, and that’s because anyone who says, “I voted for Obama, so I’m not racist,” is doing their best not to appear racist. However, we assure you, anyone on the receiving end of that comment will not buy it.

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