Black women in America just can't seem to catch a break these days.
Between Michelle Obama being called transphobic slurs for her stature and physique to Janay Rice getting shamed and lampooned by Fox News anchors after being assaulted by her NFL player husband, black women are routine targets for disrespectful jokes and offbeat questions about their everyday lives. These kinds of comments are deeply rooted in negative media stereotypes that have little-to-no connection with reality — and it's about time we put an end to all of the ignorance.
For years now, black women have openly challenged the racism and misogyny, but to no avail. In 2011, blogger Franchesca "Chescaleigh" Ramsey struck a nerve when she created the video "Shit white girls say...to black girls," a spin-off of the popular "shit people say" meme at the time. Black women everywhere applauded Chescaleigh for hilariously demonstrating to the rest of the world just how offensive and cringeworthy some of the remarks are, but the attitudes she so masterfully critiqued still persist.
Rather than taking that moment as a challenge to self-educate about the experiences of women of color — perspectives widely available on the Internet and in numerous books — many have instead rested comfortably in their privilege of not having to encounter the difficult challenges endured every day by black women.
It's not that talking to black women should be hard work, but people need to make a sincere effort to undo several years of unchecked, subtle racism and sexist microaggressions. And in the interest of elevating the conversation beyond the ridiculous tropes, here are a few of the most common statements that everyone should strongly consider avoiding while speaking with a black woman.
1. "You're so pretty for a black girl."
Despite the obvious pseudoscience related to "testosterone levels" and fat-shaming black women for having curvier figures than average, the author isn't alone in this line of unfortunate reasoning. In fact, this attitude still pervades many aspects of society, especially regarding dark-skinned black women.
This supremely backhanded compliment first and foremost suggests that all black women are ugly. Not to mention the condescending notion that the woman you're speaking with is a rare exception to a rule that only exists in the first place due to prejudice.
Next time, just drop the qualifier and offer a genuine affirmation of a black woman's beauty, without the racist tropes.
2. "I want hair like yours."
No, you don't. To have black hair means being subject to highest degree of scrutiny — from assessments about your professionalism to comments from other black folks about your so-called lack of self-respect. More often than not, people who aren't black have the privilege of not having to agonize over the message you're sending to the world or to your own community every day by choosing to wear your hair a certain way.
Take for example Louisiana weather woman Rhonda Lee, who was fired in November 2012 after responding to negative comments about her natural hair on KTBS 3 News's Facebook page. When she was unable to find a job afterward, according to News One, her friends tried to help, but came up empty-handed.
"Co-workers have had an intervention of sorts with me when I first started trying to get weather jobs. They took me to lunch and told me, 'You're going to have to grow your hair out,'" Lee said of the tedious search process. It took until July 2014 for Lee to land a new job with WeatherNation in Colorado, with her hair intact.
You might be trying to share your respect and admiration for black hair being cool, different and versatile, but there's a heavy burden associated with what adorns a black woman's head — one that you'll never quite understand.
3. "You don't look completely black. What exactly are you?"
More often than not, this question stems from a few things: genuine curiosity, implicit bias and one terrible attempt at complimenting or exoticizing a black woman. Sadly, these questions point to an unfortunate trend of colorism in American society, where minorities are more "acceptable" if they're closer to looking like a white person.
A recent study revealed that "educated" black people are perceived as having lighter skin, whereas "ignorant" and "athletic" black folks are thought to have darker skin — regardless of what their true skin tone was. Colorism also works as a divisive force within communities of color, as some racial minorities express similar attitudes and preferences.
Instead of telling a black woman that she's beautiful or intelligent, people of all races, including some black men, perpetuate the unfortunate assumption that these characteristics can only be achieved if one's recent ancestors mated with whites or anyone who wasn't black. Black women, too, are endowed with socially acceptable and desirable traits, regardless of their skin tone or their family lineage.
4. "Can you teach me how to dance?"
Some people take classes, others practice in the mirror or watch YouTube tutorials. That goes for people of all races.
But the belief that black people are naturally better dancers than others — especially white people — is so strong that research has been done to determine its validity. So far, researchers have determined that rhythmic ability and the importance of music and dance is cultural, as opposed to innate or hereditary.
This question mistakenly assumes that you know someone's background or cultural upbringing, even their interests and talents, based entirely on their skin tone. Many black folks grew up in an environment where dancing was celebrated and encouraged. For others, that's just not the case.
5. "I wish I were as strong as you."
The media often plays up the resilience of black women to the point where it becomes a caricature. The latest tragedy is Lifetime's new show Girlfriend Intervention, a makeover show promoting the unfortunate idea that, as they say, "Trapped inside of every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out." The premise is based on the stereotype of white women as docile and delicate, while black women are bossy, loud and opinionated — a trope also known as The Sapphire.
There are a lot of problems with this idea, but the important thing to keep in mind is this: Black women don't always want to be strong. Often times, it's their only choice.
Consider that unequal pay for equal work disproportionately affects black women, who make 64 cents on the dollar compared with white men, while white women make roughly 78 cents, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. In addition, the research showed that black women have higher breast cancer mortality rates and are more than twice as likely to be murdered by men.
The "strong black woman" stereotype persists because black women are often seen in the media as they combat higher rates of assault, poverty and discrimination — issues bred from systemic inequalities that disproportionately burden them. Although these circumstances breed stereotypes of hardened women, many black women would, in fact, prefer to be carefree.
6. "Did you grow up with your dad?"
It's been proven over and over again that the "disappearing black dad" myth is blatantly false. In fact, research shows that black fathers are more present in their kids' day-to-day lives than fathers of other races. Still, people assume that black fathers are perpetually absent, due to the conflation between "living with dad" and "having a relationship with dad" by most researchers.
Even if someone didn't growing up living in the same house as their father, it doesn't mean that the father isn't present — it just means the parents are divorced or were never married.
Information from the National Center for Health Statistics shows 67% of black dads who don't live with their children due to separation see their children at least once a month, compared with 32% of Latino fathers and 59% of white fathers.
That's not to disparage white or Latino fathers, though it's important to not make blanket assumptions about black men being deadbeat dads, as they exist in every race. If you're trying to learn more about someone — say a friend or potential partner — then this question may be acceptable. But take a moment to make sure it's approached with respect and not derived from an ugly and misinformed stereotype.
7. "You're so lucky you don't have to tan."
That's because black people have more melanin in their skin, a natural pigmentation creating the various shades of blackness that most people see on a daily basis.
One's so-called luck about "having to tan" is relative to personal preferences around skin tone. But there's a common misconception among white people that black people actually can't tan when, in fact, they can tan as much as anyone else.
Although black people are less likely to get sunburn or skin cancer, they're still vulnerable to the effects of exposure and require skin protection and care.
8. "I've got a thing for black girls."
Not all black girls are the same. So what are you attracted to, specifically?
Depending on your answer, you might be suggesting that you're interested only in the stereotypes attributed to black women, as opposed to their individual characteristics. There's nothing wrong with finding certain qualities attractive — such as hairstyles, facial features or various body types — but it's dangerous to suggest that any combination of these qualities are representative of a whole population.
Furthermore, check your wording on this one. Saying you have "a thing" for black girls is like saying you have "a thing" for action movies or Chinese food. It implies a blatant objectification of black women, which denies them their worth as people.
9. "Why are you so angry?"
Almost everyone has heard of the angry black woman stereotype — but that doesn't mean it's true.
Black women aren't always angry. But even if they were, they have a right to be, as any one of the previous eight points would otherwise suggest. Least of all, it's because black women are continually berated with hurtful and offensive questions and stereotypes. Telling a black woman to "lighten up," or be "less angry," demonstrates a complete lack of understanding or empathy surrounding her experiences.
And like any other woman, black women have a range of human emotions and expressions that should be respected and affirmed, not stigmatized by an ugly combination of sexism and racism.