Stop Saying ‘She Is Black, But…’
Unless you’re ready to defend racist beliefs
It happened as recently as a few weeks ago. Someone White, liberal, and who I generally agree with on many things, was discussing something relating to Blackness live on the local NPR station. She was explaining the difference between Roxbury, a Black neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts which is a hub of Black culture within the commonwealth, but perhaps best known as the birthplace of New Edition outside of it, and West Roxbury, another neighborhood in Boston that is nearly 80% White. As you can imagine, because of their similar names, the two neighborhoods are often mistaken for one another despite not being contiguous and having vastly different demographics. While describing Roxbury, she said something to the effect of, “It’s a Black neighborhood, but it has some of the most beautiful architecture…” before her cohost cut her off as he often does in their normally playful and familiar banter.
I felt that “but” in the pit of my stomach. It churned as disappointment and anger. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the ominous “but.” Once in South Africa when I was in my early twenties, one of our hosts referenced a Black student of his in a similar and peculiar way, “She is Black, but beautiful.” He put such emphasis on the word beautiful as if he wanted us to know that he could recognize beauty in the Black community and clearly without realizing that this might offend us in any way. My law school friend and I felt that in our stomachs, too. His statement created a deep dissonance with what I know to be true about Black people the world over, overlaid with what I know about beauty. I recognize the privilege that I have to have been intimately exposed to Black people for all these years. I can consciously understand that familiarity breeds appreciation and perspective that many non-Black people in a still largely-segregated world don’t get.
In South Africa, we found ourselves in this man’s home, eating a dinner he prepared for us after we had been turned away from another White-owned guest house in the middle of the night. Turned away for being Black. That kindness of his…