Ignorance, racism, and the insular

My cousin relates a story thus:
When I was in school, we had this kid from Brooklyn who, like me, had come from a pretty much all white background. He was asking about a fellow student and couldn’t remember his name. So he says, in full Brooklyn guinea, “What’s that guy’s name, the kid who sits behind you? You know, the guy with the glasses? He wears his hair real short?”
Finally when he realizes he can’t get his point across he says, “You know, the colored guy.”

This is in about 1995 or so. My cousin explained that they pointed out to their fellow that, this not being 1965, "colored" was kind of seen as, you know, racist.

So when a friend sent me a story about Lindsay Lohan’s excitement over electing the first colored president I immediately went to IMDB.com and looked up her birthplace. Two guesses.

Actually it says N.Y., N.Y., but you get the picture.

The problem with “African-American” for many is that it sounds a little bit like snide code and is possibly more exclusive-sounding than it was meant to be. I was in a book discussion club in the local prison (I was a facilitator, not a prisoner) and over the course of five years, racial language remained a recurring theme.

The upshot was that African-American had a pretense to it that was not conducive to everyday conversation; “the black guy” was just as descriptive without being presumptuous.


The prisoners weren’t exactly what you’d call educated. Context is the difference and the key. In most contexts, the President-elect says “African-American” but he sometimes says black folks. The premise is that in common use “black” is acceptable but in serious conversations it’s a liability.

Which brings us to poor Lindsay. Although I am reticent to be a Lohan apologist, there are several reasons to ignore this. Her statement wasn’t of latent racism; it was of active ignorance. As we go along, we learn what’s acceptable and what’s not. Her problem, like my cousin’s friend’s problem, and really everyone who lives in an insular culture, is that having learned one euphemism for “black” she was unable to learn another.

I’m sure she’s learned it by now.



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