The 10 Most Infuriating Things People Have Said to Me as a Black Woman

‘Do you know how to read?’

Photo: Brooks Leibee/Unsplash

In the time of coronavirus, I spend a lot of time sitting around with the friends in my quarantine circle trading stories about our lives before the pandemic. Recently, our conversation turned to the worst dates we’d ever been on, and as I relayed one of my dating failures, I shared a racially charged comment one suiter made on a first date.

Immediately, one of my White friends balked at my date’s behavior while my friends of color laughed and offered to share similar tales of their own. Ignorant, offensive, and racist comments are old hat to most people of color. Many of us have heard them from a young age and learned to shake them off and keep moving.

But every once in a blue moon, there comes a racially charged comment that can’t be shaken. I’ve collected these comments over the years, from as far back as 11-years-old to as recently as last month. Each one carries the unique distinction of not only being unforgettable but of causing an intense discomfort on the verge of anger every time I remember them. As I think of them now, I think I’ve cracked the case of what makes these particular comments more upsetting than others, but in order to discuss that, I have to share these comments with you.

Below, in no particular order, is a list of the 10 most jarring comments people have made about my race and the context in which they were said.

  1. “I used to be Black in previous life.”
    A White woman who invited me to her apartment and cooked me dinner for a very awkward evening which, in retrospect, may have been a first (and last)date
  2. “I’ve gotta tell you the truth: Black people are okay. There are some good ones and some bad ones. Just like everyone else.”
    My White senior neighbor, whom I have spoken to weekly since I moved in two years ago, while talking about the Black man who moved in downstairs
  3. “No one ever told me that I couldn’t touch Black people. This ‘don’t touch my hair thing’ is all new. How would I know I can’t touch it?”
    A millennial White guest at the restaurant I was working at, explaining to me why it was uncomfortable for her to chat with me but not touch my afro
  4. “We’re different species. You’re a lion, and I’m a tiger. That’s why I don’t believe in interracial marriage: the species shouldn’t mix.”
    My White best friend of three years as we got drunk on the eve of college graduation
  5. “Sondra’s Black and gay. Having her in my life knocks two tokens off of my friend checklist!”
    A White friend introducing me to a stranger at a house party
  6. “Do you know how to read?”
    My favorite teacher’s White husband as he met me at an after-school event for gifted students in sixth grade
  7. “Your hair is made out of horsetails. That’s absolutely disgusting.”
    A White classmate in my Texas high school when I showed up to class wearing box braids
  8. “When I heard your voice on the phone, I thought you were white. That’s a compliment.”
    Multiple friends’ White parents when I met them for the first time
  9. “Why do you always color in the people you draw with brown crayons? It’s not really a pretty color.”
    My White girl scout troop leader in middle school
  10. “Black people are fine: They aren’t harassed anymore. Latinx people are the new Black people.”
    A Salvadorian co-worker on a night out after work

In my personal list of most upsetting comments, it’s those from the people I know that hit the hardest: friends, neighbors, community leaders, dates. Hearing these types of comments from the everyday people of my life always reminds me that I live in the United States — a nation with a long history of racist ideals. More than anger at any one person, I find myself feeling upset by the notion of “default” vs. “other” that births comments like the ones above.

In the United States, White lives, experiences, and viewpoints are largely considered the default. Think of it this way: If someone says to you, “There was an amazing barista at the coffee shop” and you assumed the barista was White, then you consider White the default. Almost every book, movie, television show, and film we consume in America engrains this idea into our heads from an early age. It is a symptom of this nation’s racist past that may seem harmless but carries insidious undertones.

When the first film in The Hunger Games series opened in 2012, viewers were quick to attack the portrayals of characters Rue and Cinna by Black actors despite the fact that both are clearly described as being such in the books. Some went as far as to claim that their deaths were “not as sad” because they weren’t White. This type of othering leads people to exoticize non-White bodies or see them as less than. You can see that in the second, third, and fourth quotes above; the speakers didn’t afford me the same humanity they afforded themselves.

On the flip side, othering can also lead to the practice of tokenizing non-White bodies. It may lead people to believe that people of color can be fetishized or collected (see the fifth quote above) or that we should only ask for so much at one time. The tokenism perpetuated by films, books, movies, news, and other media creates an environment that suggests that there’s only space for one token at a time. I understand why my co-worker said what she did in the last quote. There’s a belief that if too many groups of “others” are visible, the default will fight back and make things worse for everyone. I wish I could say that this is a false belief, but the attack on the United States Capitol building on January 6 proved otherwise.

So how do we, as people taught from an early age that White is the default, change our way of thinking? The first step is being aware of this mindset and its power in our minds. The next is to pay attention to how that mindset manifests in your mind. Without judgment, pay attention to when you default to Whiteness. Once you can do that, make an effort to eradicate the default. When you catch yourself defaulting to Whiteness, stop yourself. Remind your brain (and the brains of those around you) that White is not the barometer by which any standard is set. This way of thinking has been built into the American psyche for years and it won’t be mended overnight, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be mended at all.

Queer femme examining the twisted trinity of trauma, love, and independence through personal narratives. New stories weekly.

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