The title of this article, “How to talk to a black person,” has a short answer and a long one. The short, simple, and rational answer is “We’re all human beings, so treat everyone the same.” Unfortunately, while everyone has heard and considered this idea at some point in their life, racial tension still arises constantly in common social interaction.
We call America a melting pot, but in many ways our ingredients seem to repel each other. Interracial marriage, for instance, has seen no great rise in our history, and remains fairly uncommon, regardless of societies newer, more egalitarian approach of racial integration.
Of all the tensions existing underneath the shiny veneer of civilized American life, the widespread fear of African Americans, or negrophobia, may be the most prevalent. White Americans, the predominate holders of weak-kneed negrophobia, do often share their fear of alternate “races” or more accurately ethno-cultural groups. But the tragic and traumatic history of white on black in America sets African Americans in their own, very special category of European American phobias.
Am I a black person? Technically the answer is no, although due to the nature of my family I cannot be sure either way. But just to be safe lets say that I am slightly paler than the average human being; which is of course a medium-brown skinned person of Asian origin. They win by population.
While I may in fact be called “white,” I have lived among and gotten along with black people all of my life. I cannot claim to have mastered my cultural anxiety altogether, but I believe I have it well under control. If nothing else, I have rid myself of unnecessary preconceived notions.
On rare occasions, I find myself in the company of only European Americans. One of the odd, yet natural occurrence of these situations is that someone brings up black people and starts an exited conversation, usually full of stupidity. It occurred to me one day when this phenomenon began to appear regularly, just how unreachable African Americans seem to white America.
They are not unreachable. They are culturally different than you. They are just as reachable and/or unreachable as any other human being on the planet.
My first piece of advice when talking to a black person is to imagine them as a person from a foreign country. When we speak to a person from a different area of the world, we usually allow our infatuation for their exoticism to overcome our social phobias, but for some reason, when a neighbor acts differently, many people develop resentment.
Black culture is unique in America. It is separate and distinctive from overall American culture, if there is one, and European American culture, if there is one of those as well. Body language that you may feel is meant to be threatening may mean something completely different to them. Language that seems confusing and menacing to you is simply normal speech for them. When you recognize African American culture as real and valuable in your mind, you will have made the first real step.
The only thing left to do is to treat them as you would any other person. First of all, don’t trust anyone of any ethnicity if you feel that you are in a vulnerable situation, such as being alone at three in the morning in a run down neighborhood. On the positive end, show them basic human consideration.
When talking to an African American, don’t act like you’re afraid of them. Also don’t try to imitate their actions or speech. You have your own culture, and they know English perfectly well, making the choice to speak in the Ebonics dialect. The last rule is especially important to those who are just recently overcoming their negrophobia and associating with African Americans.
Don’t try to start a conversation about race relations, or “what it’s like to be black”, or anything resembling this. I only say this because I happen to know that black people get this sort of thing all the time from starry-eyed, well-meaning white kids, and they are pretty well sick of it. Besides which, it’s a little invasive. It’s better to just ignore the subject of race in general, at all times.
It’s better to focus on what makes us similar.
Just talk. It’s easy. Mistakes will be made, but social interaction is always fraught with stress and embarrassment. It’s average, and nothing to be afraid of.