Don’t say “that is so black”

Ayla A. Wilk,
Blacksburg, VA.

I grew up in a small town in the south side of Virginia. Our town was built on a foundation of tobacco plantations and textile factories. We had only one high school. The population breakdown was nearly 50/50 African American to White – other ethnic groups were negligible. The blessing was that we all mixed – black, while, rich, poor. Sure, there were cliques, but everyone knew each other. My friend group was a little more diverse than that of the average high school student. Two of my best friends were African American, and I picked up their lingo. They would often turn racial stereotypes into good-natured jokes. One I remember distinctly was “That is SO black.” The phrase was used any time (a) an African American person had distinguished themselves through their behavior, clothing style, or attitude. or (b) white people would adopt a stereotypical African American tradition, such as eating certain foods or wearing a certain hair style. As far as I understood it it was sort of a compliment, like “See? Our culture is so awesome, white people want to emulate it.” We threw the term around casually, never thinking about their implications. My wake up call came when I got to college. A group of us were planning a picnic for our dormitory. The (white) leader of our group suggested fried chicken, potato salad, and watermelon for the menu. I laughed and said something along the lines of “our picnic is going to be SO black!” Among my high school friends, that would’ve been a compliment – meaning it was going to be a hell of a good picnic! But the room went silent. The one African American student in our group gave me a frightening glare. “That was TOTALLY inappropriate” our leader said. My face flushed as I realized how racist my statement had sounded to the others in the room. It was then I learned that what you say can mean something very different that what you intended it to mean, depending on the color of your skin.


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