Relationships of any kind can be messy. This is especially true when those bonds involve people from two different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes, friends permit cross-cultural behaviors that most people would consider unacceptable. But when that one-on-one understanding gets taken out of an interpersonal context and applied to all people from a given group, it's a recipe for disaster. That's the lesson French designer Jean Touitou learned the hard way last month after one of his recent collections included the use of the N-word. Touitou's defense? Kanye West said he could.
That decision backfired, however, with outfitter Timberland severing ties with the brand. But Touitou is not the only one to fall prey to such a breach in common sense. To save everyone from the trouble of these kinds of awkward encounters and conversations, here's a handy list of things to avoid doing in public. Because having a black friend still doesn't mean you get a free pass.
1. Using the N-word.
Most of the time, the N-word is considered a racial slur. However, some black people have also reappropriated the word as a term of endearment (take rap lyrics, for example). The community still debates whether or not using the word in any context is OK — but that's a discussion that needs to be controlled by black people alone.
2. Touching hair without permission.
Curiosity about the different styles and textures of black hair has been part of mainstream conversations for a while now. It's one thing for a friend to green-light a respectful request to touch their hair. But your friend doesn't speak on behalf of any other person with braids, dreads, weave, curls or an afro.
Black people aren't traveling petting zoos, but the primary issue is one of boundaries. Very few people appreciate being touched in any way without permission.
3. Calling things "hood" or "ghetto."
Just because the coffee machine is on the fritz or that pen is running out of ink doesn't mean these things are "ghetto." The term is used to describe neighborhoods where immigrants and underrepresented groups dwell, and that means that it's hopelessly entangled with racist and classist associations that come along with the societal perimeters of impoverished neighborhoods. It's no coincidence that this idea of a "ghetto" often includes black and/or brown people.
4. Discussing the "strong black woman" you have inside you.
Everyone has moments when they've felt especially up front, outspoken or even a bit sassy. That's a matter of attitude, personality and individual reactions to certain situations. It has nothing to do with a person's race or gender. Unfortunately, "sassy" is how black women have come to be stereotyped in media (for example, Girlfriend Intervention and Bye Felicia!). And that's a harmful, two-dimensional trope. Needless to say, it doesn't feel good to be reduced to a caricature.
5. Cracking jokes based on black stereotypes.
Those quips about "fried chicken and watermelon" or wisecracks about slavery are ill-advised in any light. Even if one black friend isn't offended by them, that doesn't imply permission to carry that twisted humor into other environments where black people are present. Ultimately, there's not much of an excuse for these kinds of jokes in the first place.
6. Donning blackface.
This form of "entertainment" has long been used to dehumanize and denigrate black people, dating back to times when blacks were largely excluded from being actors or comedians. When a costume is directly related to racist depictions of black people, putting it on serves only to pour more salt in the wound. There's nothing clever or ironic about this costume.
7. Calling out your "black friend."
Of course, context matters here. There are many scenarios when sharing a person's racial background might be relevant, even important. But invoking the common self-defense mechanism, "I'm not racist, I have black friends," is not an insurance policy. You alone are responsible for thoughtless or prejudicial actions.
Furthermore, the phrase reduces friends to their race, and that makes them a token. If the friendship is truly built on mutual respect, then there's plenty of space to celebrate and affirm cultural differences without this prescriptive logic.