5 Phrases Your Black Friend Wishes You’d Stop Saying

If you start practicing now, you can probably eliminate these words from your vocabulary by Black History Month

SStatistically speaking, about 75% of White people don’t even have a Black friend, but on the off chance that you are one of the White people who do, I have a message for you from your (one) Black friend: Do better.

In her New York Times bestselling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, author Robin DiAngelo writes, “White progressives … so often — despite our conscious intentions — make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.”

This is in part because White progressives have the most consistent access and adjacency to people of the global majority. You are our bosses, co-workers, in-laws, and friends. You love us, and we love you, but your lack of self-awareness makes you dangerous, like a blindfolded elephant mindlessly swinging its trunk, leaving destruction in your wake.

The supreme irony of cross-racial friendships is that the more I care about you, the less inclined I am to point out the racist impact of your words or actions. It’s easy to tell a Donald Trump supporter that Blackness is not a monolith and their use of racially charged stereotypes is harmful, but it’s harder to explain to my best friend from college why saying “you’re not really Black” isn’t a compliment.

I’ve made it a personal goal to stop wasting my breath on calling out my enemies (they’re not listening anyway) and to instead invest more time and energy into calling in my friends and allies. I think that only by holding each other accountable for the privileged identities we carry can we move forward into a society where those identities no longer predict life outcomes for the marginalized.

It’s in this spirit of partnership and progress that I offer this short but crucial list of phrases your Black friend wishes you would stop saying (but probably won’t tell you about). In no particular order:

I’ve made it a personal goal to stop wasting my breath on calling out my enemies (they’re not listening anyway) and to instead invest more time and energy into calling in my friends and allies.

1. “You’re so strong!”

While on the surface this may seem like a compliment, it’s really not. For many Black women, “strength” has an automatic association with silent suffering and the dehumanization that accompanies emotional denial.

The “strong Black woman” archetype is based on centuries of pseudo-scientific experimentation on Black women that contributes to modern-day racial bias in physical pain management. But the stereotype has bled out of the medical world and into society at large, where it’s widely believed that Black women simply don’t feel physical or emotional pain the same way their White counterparts do. This dangerous assumption and the callous treatment that grows out of it has led many Black women to embody the “superwoman” stereotype to the detriment of our mental, physical, and emotional health.

This belief system has become ingrained in the minds of Black women as well. This stereotype has kept Black women from expressing themselves and being believed and respected in their self-expression.

By reinforcing the Black superwoman schema, you are essentially telling your friend: “I’m okay with a system that dehumanizes you and calls it strength.”

If you want to be supportive and encouraging, try supporting your friend’s right to be a whole Black woman instead of a “strong” one. As Taraji P. Henson recently told Patia Braithwaite in Self magazine: “I’m a whole black woman, whatever comes with that. All the emotions, all of the rage, the anger, the love, the hurt, the hope, the despair, the strength, the vulnerability. I’m all of that.”

2. “You’re so articulate!”

I can’t count the number of times people have told me this. Even though I was born in the United States, speak two languages fluently, and was a statewide speech and debate champion in high school, somehow it still surprises folks that I speak English well and use multisyllabic words.

This statement signals a longstanding tradition of using language to reinforce racial hierarchy. In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave her now-famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. Truth, an upstate New Yorker who spoke English and Dutch fluently, delivered her soliloquy in the same colonial English that White female suffragettes used, but the version of her words we all learned growing up were actually penned by White feminist Frances Gage 12 years after Truth delivered her speech. Gage’s version is riddled with “slave speech” that discredited the validity of Truth’s words and reinforced the attitude that White feminist audiences already had toward their darker-skinned counterparts.

In the same way, calling your Black friend “articulate” today reinforces the idea that White people have the right to define what it means to be well-spoken and that the only way to be truly eloquent is to mimic the speaking patterns of people of Western European descent.

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

3. “I wish I could wear/get away with/style my hair like that.”

Mainly, you should stop saying this because it’s not true. It’s 2020. Any hairstyle you can fathom is just a lace front and a dream away, and Lord knows there’s no shortage of White women appropriating Black culture, fashion, and even complexion.

The key to understanding the racist impact of this phrase is unpacking the spoken or implied “get away with” part of the statement. At worst, you’re saying that Black cultural expression is something to be “gotten away with,” i.e., something inherently bad or wrong. At best, you’re admitting that if there were no social consequences for White cultural appropriation of Black style, you would gladly participate in it. Your Black friend understands this dichotomy even if you aren’t fully conscious of it yet.

4. “You’re not really Black.”

When I was younger and deeply ensconced in “talented tenth” mentality, I used to consider this a compliment. After all, I knew what people meant by it: I was well-spoken, intelligent, cultured, respectable. I was all of the things their limited interactions with Blackness taught them most people who looked like me were not.

Every metric my White friends have ever used to measure my Blackness is rooted in false stereotypes. There is nothing exceptional about a Black woman who reads or listens to John Mayer or excels at chemistry or likes beach vacations. Your Black friend enjoying the same activities as you doesn’t make her less Black, but your thinking it does makes you less cultured.

Americans, whether Black or White, have a toxic relationship with race, privilege, and power, and that relationship is sustained in large part by collective denial and willful ignorance.

5. “I can’t believe it.”

This kind of statement is insidiously harmful because it assumes White ignorance is the equivalent of racial innocence. Robin DiAngelo said it best on a recent episode of Layla Saad’s Good Ancestor podcast: “White people are not innocent on race. I think it’s a kind of willful refusal to see or to know because people of color, you’ve been telling us forever.”

An unarmed Black child is murdered by the police? You can’t believe it. The president fills his Cabinet with White supremacists? You can’t believe it. A 16-year-old White girl plots to murder a church full of Black parishioners? You just can’t believe it!

I’ll admit, the election of Trump came as a shock to me, not because of what I knew of this country, but because of what I wanted and needed to believe about my country. I understand how hard it can be to admit to oneself the relationship you’re emotionally invested in is actually toxic and abusive, but I also understand that denial helps to keep us in toxic and abusive situations.

Americans, whether Black or White, have a toxic relationship with race, privilege, and power, and that relationship is sustained in large part by collective denial and willful ignorance.

The next time you’re tempted to say you “can’t believe” something, ask yourself: Why can’t I believe it? Has this happened before? Is this a daily experience for people with a different skin tone, religious background, or ethnicity from me? How does this information contradict what I want to believe about my country? What does it mean for me as a White person to be ignorant about this?

Then take the next step: Google it. White people are often incredulous about things you could easily Google, but instead of looking it up, you expect your Black friends to do the uncompensated labor of explaining their lived experience in a way that you can understand. Not cool, White friend, not cool.

SSimply eliminating these phrases from your speech won’t make you “more woke,” won’t eradicate racial wealth or health disparities, and won’t save us from four more years of Trump and his supporters. What it will do is show your Black friend(s) that you want to do better, that you’re trying to minimize your racist impact, and that you take responsibility for being a better friend and ally, and in the immortal words of Nina Simone, that’s all I ask.

A version of this article originally appeared in An Injustice! — a Medium publication about voices, values, and identities.

World Changer. Social Thinker. Business Owner.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store