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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Friday, May 02, 2008

Real Talk about Race: Chapter Four

Friends, Frienemies, Countrymen, lend me your eyes. What I mean is keep reading, 'cause I promise this installment of our series on race relations will be the simplest yet.

In chapters one, two, and three, we've talked about fear of being lumped in with bad people who look like us, the legacy of slavery in the U.S., race and politics, and defining hate crime, among other things.

Today I wanna talk stereotypes and pros and cons of political correctness.

First, how many of us know the formal definition of "stereotype?" says its sociological meaning is "a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group."

I ask about that definition, because in the comments section of Chapter One, my friend Og honestly asked about black men and razor bumps and black men and straightened hair.

I gotta give him props. A lot of people would have stayed away from those sorts of questions for fear of sounding bad, looking bad, whatever.

But Og didn't say anything disrespectful to me or about me. He simply asked about two physical characteristics that he's seen in/on black men and that he did not understand. And the fact is, under a specific circumstance lots of black men get razor bumps when they shave their faces.

Political correctness (by some other name, please!) can serve a purpose: to keep a seed planted in the backs of our minds that we should exercise common sense and basic respect when talking to or about someone else's differences. Too much PC - which, in my mind, is almost any - is a bad thing.

So when does political correctness go from common sense caution to overkill? When you get angry about a comment or question that is rooted in fact - the exception being when you say it or ask it in a tacky, tasteless way.

Remember, just 'cause something is a stereotype, doesn't make it false. I love to eat chicken, for example. And anyone who doesn't like that can bite me.

From the beginning of our race relations discussions, I've said if we can't talk about ALL of it - the complicated and the simple - then we're doomed to maintain at least a smidgen of misunderstanding between us, even in the best of times. Best way to break barriers and avoid embarrassing situations involving our differences is to just talk about 'em.

So in the spirit of real talk, Og here's the deal with the razor bumps: Many black men have coarse, curly facial hair. While this may be aesthetically pleasing, it's a pain in the behind when it comes to shaving, because when some of us use straight, traditional razors our facial hair is cut so short that it begins to curl virtually from the second it starts to grow back. And sometimes when that happens, the hair can grow right back into the skin, creating an ingrown hair effect. It's why, when I was a kid my dad would use this smelly concoction called "Magic Shave," to to chemically lift the hair off his face, so he could get a clean shave. Magic Shave prevented razor bumps. Otherwise, a straight razor would have really done a number on his skin. It's why I don't use a straight razor. I shave with an electric shaver - the same kind they use in the barbershop to shave your head bald. It gives a clean shave, but not so short that your facial hair has a chance to grow awry.

There. That wasn't so painful.

As for the processed hair, like I said in the comments section back on Chapter One, Og, that's a much more complicated explanation. And no doubt it will vary depending on who's giving the explanation. I was always taught by my elders that black men started processing their hair back in the day - as early as 1930s, my grandmother always said - so that they could style their hair after the stars of the day. It just so happened that the stars of the day were almost exclusively white, so they had hair that was straight or wavy. In order for black men to achieve that effect with their own hair, they had to essentially put heavy perms in it. My grandfather used to call it getting his hair "conked." He said when he was young and dumb he'd get his hair conked or fried, dyed, and laid to the side. Fortunately, as he exited childhood and entered manhood he recognized that his naturally curly, coarser hair was just fine, and that he didn't need to chemically torture his scalp to look like something he wasn't and feel cool.

Now, I know I'm not the only one with stereotypes to answer or to ask about. After putting myself out there, I'd better get a helluva lot of feedback. I want to know what you'd like to know...about one another. If you have a question about Asians, or women, or whites, or Latinos, or blacks, ask it in the comments. And whichever of you has the answer, knock yourself out. Just keep in mind to be respectful.

So let's wrap this up with a brief cautionary tale of political correctness overkill. I spent last night at a surreal neighborhood association meeting that was supposed to be a meeting of the minds between association members and reps from the city, police, etc., and a welcome to prospective new members. In a matter of minutes though, the meeting turned into a free for all of angry people trying to out talk one another. I'll blog more on the meeting this weekend, but one incident stood out to me.

I had walked out of meeting hall to go to the rest room. While I was out, apparently a shouting match started. Tones and tensions escalated, and Mrs. B, reasonably afraid, got up and walked to the back of the room to find me and get close to the exit, in case we needed to scram. Things calmed down eventually, and another woman who had been sitting next to Mrs. B came to the back of the room and struck up a conversation with her. Nice lady. In minutes the two of them were comparing notes about the 'hood, talking about getting together to walk dogs, and so on. Mrs B then introduced me to the other woman. We exchanged pleasantries, and I turned my attention back to the meeting.

As Mrs. B and the other woman chatted and discussed neighborhood issues and crime prevention, and so on, the other woman, whose house was broken into...while she was at home sleep two years ago, talked about how paranoid she can be sometimes. Well, one of the rabble rousers who started the shouting match in the meeting walked by. And the woman made a comment to Mrs. B about being nervous and wondering where "that black guy" had gone.

Almost immediately, she turned to me and apologized profusely, insisting she shouldn't have said "black guy." And it wasn't right.

Why not? I mean, I guess she could've described him as the guy in yellow shorts, or the guy in the blue baseball cap. But human nature is that we tend to hone in the most prominent feature. And that's how we describe people in a snap: the fat guy, the tall woman, the guy with the Mohawk, the woman with the jaundiced skin. Whatever.

My response was "Don't be sorry. I'm not mad. You weren't talking about me!"

Let's get logical folks. If we can't simply mention another person's obvious features, we are way past the point of trouble. We've gotta lose those sorts of hangups, in the interest of eliminating race as a "problem" topic.

BTW, that woman was really nice. I hope she and Mrs. B do end up hanging out. And from the short conversation I had with him, I have no doubt I'll end up tipping a pint with her husband....without regard for his appearance.

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  • A coworker of mine, who is black, asked a third coworker, who is white, to describe a visitor she had missed.

    The black coworker asked, "Was she black?" The white coworker responded that she couldn't remember.

    This struck the black coworker as odd, and she later asked me, "How can one not remember the color of somebody's skin?"

    My take on it was that the white coworker remembered perfectly well the color of the visitor's skin, but somehow felt awkward at being asked to recall someone's skin color.

    What do you think, James?

    Anyway, to participate in your Q&A invitation, here's my question.

    Why do some people have so much difficulty pronouncing the word "asked" without it sounding like "axed"?

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 7:28 PM  

  • A while ago - I blogged about something that happened in my son's 1st grade class. They had all colored a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. Every single child but ONE had colored him in brown. The other child, who is black, colored him black. To me - I thought this was quite enlightening. I figured the other first graders colored him as they saw him - brown skin tone. Whereas the black child colored him black, because he knew that was the terminology.

    And my question I asked - was when does the a child learn the differences?

    By Anonymous Karmyn R, at 7:46 PM  

  • Nicely put. And thanks.
    Here's another part fo the reaosn I asked this: A guy I worked for, ages ago, once told me about "having to go to some hospital in the hood" as he called it. He said "I walked into the emergency room andI was overcome with that damned n***** smell".

    I knew what he was talking about, because I had been around the guys who used those chemicals etc. and I understood they sometimes had strong smells- but to define it that way made me loathe the man, and i quit soon therafter.

    As if the use of a skin product somehow makes you less a human. I have not wanted to smack someone so badly in my whole life, and only the fact that I needed that paycheck stopped me from doing so.

    This is an excellent topic, and I'll be posting in Chez Og about it in a bit.

    By Anonymous og, at 10:33 PM  

  • Hi James,
    I am glad that you have opened the door for us to communicate and given us the opportunity to learn. I'd like to share what I have learned over the years and ask a few questions. Fortunately, I was raised by two marvelous parents. They neither harbored racial thoughts nor presented any prejudices to their children. I grew up, playing and interacting with multi-racial individuals, and never even became aware that there was anything different about them until my freshman year in high school. At the time, the Boston race riots were occuring. I was ignorant. I came to school one day and everything had changed. From that point on, I began to build my own internal prejudices. Listening to the black perspectives presented at school created a resentment in me. I didn't like being blamed for something someone had done years before I was born. I couldn't think of any fair way to resolve the issues and I was afraid of the hatred being expressed. Attitudes in our school changed overnight. People began to be suspect, and it created a huge tension among the student body. I never experienced the over-the-top violence first hand, but I did witness many ugly verbal scenes. After I graduated, I moved to the South. I was surprised at the out-right prejudice that existed/exists in the south. It wasn't just the Rednecks and Hillbillies with their ignorance and inherited opinions; it was mainstream, white collar, educated people. Even the Yankee's from the north who had moved south in search of work, hadn't made a dent in what I believe is a generational bigotry of the area. I witnessed the violence against Vietnam Boat people of Texas. I saw black men and women paid less than their white counter-parts, I listened to horrible, narrow-minded jackasses talk trash about and make jokes about anyone who wasn't white. Yet, I did nothing. I went about my business, kept to myself for the most part. When I tried to make friends with a black family from Red Oak Texas, I discovered that the prejudice worked both sides of the fence.
    That was 25 years ago. One of the most important discoveries for me was understanding that while I don't wake up in the morning and think "I am white", alot of other races do think about their skin color and their heritage/customs. I also discovered that there is a huge prejudice among blacks themselves, in reference to the "lightness or darkness" of one's skin. James, what are your thoughts on this matter?
    In the light of the 9/11 attacks I am hard pressed to keep myself in check when I am dealing with a middle-easterner. I know it is fear-based, unreasonable and irrational, yet it is real. This gives me some insight as to how easy it is for people to feed into the prejudice presented to them from many sources. (Media, friends, family). I have and continue to be aware of my issue but wonder is this something that can be relearned, or if we end up merely controlling it, keeping one's feelings to oneself? I still have so much to learn! Thanks again for the opportunity...

    By Blogger Fire Fox, at 5:07 AM  

  • fried, dyed, and laid to the side bwaa ha ha ha.. that is so funny....I'm stealing that to explain my stupid hair years.

    Interesting story about the woman saying "that black guy." I'm usually in agreement with 95% of what you say, but this time I'm thinking she was being kind of pointed in her use of "black." It occurred to me that she probably wouldn't have used the same sentence saying "white man." I hope I'm wrong. I don't want to be that person speaking, either. It's very easy to use "that" tone, I think.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 6:25 PM  

  • Arrggghhh... I've tried to jump into this discussion a couple times and my comments have gone missing I have no idea how or why.
    Anyhoo...the very condensed version of my comments today were:
    Being raised in an all white town/school, I had no opportunity to become friends with black girls/guys or any other race really.
    Had wonderful parents who didn't teach hate.
    Met my future husband my senior year while he was working in my town. He is a mix of Korean, American/Norwegian. He was adopted from Korea at about age 3 thru Pearl Buck's Welcome House and his parents also adopted other children of different nationalities. He said growing up there were some derogatory comments from people in his school. Even now he is asked occasionally if he's Hawaiian? I thought he was even first meeting him. Someone said one time, 'well, if you aren't Hawaiian, you are atleast Samoan'. LOL He finds it funny some of the time. He's had a few issues, but for the most part, if you met this man and talked to him for 3 minutes you'de know how kind he was and a good heart and a gentle nature really shows more than skin, looks, etc.
    He's had the pleasure to reunite with his birth Mother as she's in the states with her family. She is full Korean but married to an American. Her family is a little more strict and want for their children to only marry Korean, but they love my hubby and our family just the same.

    I forget what else I had typed out in the comments so I'll just end with an invitation to stop at my blog, the 'Mary Says...' one and see the post on 'Nekkid and All Mine'. LOL I was just remembering here that something was said about Locks of Love on your post awhile back and hubby just had his cut for that on Friday. Most men of Asian descent probably don't have hair like he has so maybe that is why he gets strange comments.

    Have a great week! :)

    By Blogger CrystalChick, at 6:33 PM  

  • Sarc, thanks for weighing in. I agree with your assessment as to why the white co-worker said she didn't remember the person's skin color.

    As to "ask" vs. "axe," it has nothing to do with people's inability to pronounce the word properly. It's all about people pronouncing it improperly because it's "bad" in the cool sense. It's how their favorite musician pronounces it. It's how all the kids in the neighborhood around 'em pronounce it 'cause they too admire the same musicians. It's a stupid, stupid pop culture ism that unfortunately caught on and permanently found its way into the urban lexicon.

    KarmynR, that is facsinating to me that a young child would color the image with black, 'cause he related to the word as opposed to using brown, which would be closer to his skin color. I don't know when they start to notice the difference. I'd sure like a pro who knows to answer that question for us. My humble guess would be kids notice color differences very early, but just don't care.

    Og, thanks! It's funny how different artificial chemical compositions combined with body chemistry can make for odd smells. The first time I visited the Web site, the first question I saw from a reader was "why do white people smell like wet dogs when they come in out of the rain?" That smell combination never would have occured to me, but what the hell? Amazing what smells people think they recognize. Every time I use a certain gel on my hair, I have a co-worker who tells me I smell like coconuts. There's worse things I could smell like, I guess. She could've just said nuts.

    Fire Fox, I appreciate you being so honest about this stuff. It's a tough topic. And it sounds like you've dealt with some bad individuals. As for your feelings about Middle Eastern people, media images can be powerful. When people suffer traumas, they often see their assailant "everywhere" - in the shadows, in the nooks and crannies, in the faces of people who share common physical traits with their assailant. My best advice to you, would be to take everyone you encounter as an individual. And start from scratch with each new case. Beyond that, keep the faith, that good will prevail some day.

    Hmmm. I gotta write that down...somewhere else. Might make for a good greeting card.

    Pamela, I never thought about the other side of that woman's comment. Very good point. I'll bet you're right. She probably wouldn't have described a white guy that way. Hmmmm. And you are welcome to fried, dyed and laid to the side. Of course, the fee will be a photo of you on your blog from those "stupid hair years."

    Crystalchick, sounds like your husband's a cool guy. Would like to meet him. And props to him for taking in stride all the speculation on his ethnicity. I will stop by your blog and check out that post. My apologies for not coming by more often. I've been lax in that regard, lately.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:07 PM  

  • I date black guys, just like I date anyone who meets my requirements and interests me. The only real problems I've had have been with my own black girlfriends and co-workers, as well as random black women who feel compelled to comment on the relationship. But, that's their problem, not mine. I date who I want to date.

    One question I'll sometimes ask (men and women) but no one's ever been able to answer (other than a shrug and "no idea") is, what's with the punch/fruity/etc. drinks? Different guys, different friends . . . I'm ordering Diet Coke and they're always ordering punch. Or Orange drink. Or lemonade. Rarely is it soda. So, James, it's my turn to ask you . . . what's with the punch?


    By Blogger SWF42, at 10:28 PM  

  • SWF42, ha ha ha ha ha ha! I swear I have no idea what the juice thing is all about. Is it real juice or just juice-flavored stuff, the stuff that you refer to by its color as opposed to its flavor? For example, if you're drinking grape cool-aid, it's so far from anything remotely related to grapes that the appropriate way to say it is "I'm drinking purple!"

    I'm teasing. Maybe these dudes are all health nuts or something. I never thought about it till now, but one of my best friends a few years ago when I lived in Milwaukee used to do that. We'd be at happy hour, and whenever he didn't feel like booze, he'd order a cranberry juice or OJ.

    Now I have to do research and find out more. You've got me curious.

    BTW, I love soda...too much. I've cut back though. Drinking more teas and juices. Seriously, no punchline ;>)

    As for black women's attitudes toward you, that's a post unto itself. I'll elaborate in a later chapter in this race relations series. I've never asked Mrs. B if she's caught snide comments or mean mugs over me. I'm curious.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 11:22 PM  

  • I just hate political correctness and will not buy into it.

    I'll never call a black person an African American. I think the term is ludicrous. Ask 1000 typical American people black or white to identify more than 6 countries on an unlabeled African map and my money is that no more than 3 will be able to do it. They might get South Africa, Egypt, and Madagascar and then they'd be guessing.

    And there will be a flavor of the week moniker around the corner in 10 years anyway. We've gone from negro to colored to person of color to black and now to African American. If I missed any speak up I was raised in a different country.

    And don't get me started on the politically correct term for the mentally ill. My sister is a social worker and she gets memos on that crap. Currently I believe they "social care clients".

    The people seeking refuge from the ravages of Katrina were offended to be called refugees. It's insane and even laughable because they equate the term with those damn foreigners and don't want to be lumped in with "them".

    So in my world I've stopped the clock on language evolution. You are black, white, hispanic, middle eastern or asian. People not fitting into these categories will generally be referred according to their country of origin.

    AS long as we dance around with a new term every few years we can keep being divisive and not just think of treating people like people. Political correctness just increases the problem because we start thinking the term "black guy" can be a bad thing.

    By Blogger Wavemancali, at 12:36 PM  

  • WaveManCali, as my grandma would say, preach! Seriously, well said. PC has made people afraid to talk to or about one another innocently, or fear of "accidentally" being offensive. Again, if we ask blunt questions and give blunt answers about our differences, I say we eliminate much of the stigma and make people less afraid to get to know one another.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 4:53 PM  

  • When did political correctness get in the way of simple good manners?

    I mean seriously, it seems like the whole pc movement started out with a good idea - to be civil to one another and what's wrong with that? Let's be nice to each other!

    The primary problem I see is that "PC" has been hijacked by a few sanctimonious jerks who love to cudgle otherwise well-intentioned people.

    So maybe we should just get rid of political correctness and tear a page out of our grandparents' books on etiquette and good manners.

    By Anonymous Steph, at 4:00 PM  

  • The only argument I have ever heard about describing someone as black is when reporting a crime. It was called 'profiling'. In a discriminatory area, describing a suspect as black, 6'1" and balding might give the police an excuse to hassle a lot of black men who were loosely close to the description. The argument is only partly plausible if skin color is only one attribute in the description. If people are bigoted, they don't need an excuse. If people aren't bigoted, there generally isn't a problem. One does need to distinguish that any given person will not like everyone for a variety of reasons, and skin color doesn't have to be one of those reasons. I would typically not be very fond of a thug whose nickname was "Insane" and found happiness in frying an acquaintance's testicle to make a point, regardless of his skin color. Just to make a point.

    By Blogger The CEO, at 12:16 AM  

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