What was your most racially insensitive moment?

Back when I was about 11 years old, kids in my class brought in baby photos. They were all posted anonymously, and we had to try and identify which photo went with which classmate.

As I recall, there was just one black student in my class, a girl I got along with named Tiffany.

Her baby picture was in black and white. A few other people brought in black and white photos as well.

When I saw her photo, I said out loud (to someone else) that it was really smart for her to bring in a black and white photo, because it meant it wasn’t obvious which picture was her.

Tiffany overheard me and basically exploded at me. “I have lots of baby pictures,” she said, “and you can’t necessarily tell I’m black even in the color ones.” She stalked off in a huff. I vaguely recall being too stunned to really apologize at the moment, and too embarrassed to bring it up ever again, and from that day on Tiffany didn’t really speak to me.

Of course, I didn’t really mean anything negative by what I said, but it wasn’t a brilliant insight. All told I wish I’d been smart enough to keep my mouth shut.

So what was your most racially insensitive moment?

I asked a Chinese friend if his field of vision was the same as a Caucasian’s. And I wasn’t even that young. Ouch. (But he asked me lots of stupid questions about being a girl, so no biggie).

I don’t remember this directly, but my mother used to tell the story, so it must have been true (at least approximately so, at least). When I was about 2 years old, in 1947, my family migrated from Australia to England, in what would have been a sea voyage of about a month. I was just learning words, and had just learned the word “shoes”, and went round the the deck pointing to people’s shoes and saying what apparently sounded like “Jews” Of course, some of the other passengers were Jews returning to Europe after escaping the Holocaust …

On the face of it, that isn’t a completely invalid question. It may not be polite or sensitive, but I’d actually be curious about the answer, and I’m half Asian myself (I don’t have significant epicanthic folds).

When I was maybe 6 or 7, I got into a fight with my friend Anthony. To this day I have no idea what we were fighting about. I yelled, “I wish black people were still slaves!” and then punched him in the stomach. I think they sent me home for that. I have absolutely no idea why I said it because I never had any actual ill will towards blacks - I think I was just trying to piss him off. Strangely, our friendship continued as if nothing had ever happened.

I’d be about 4 and my sisters and I were at the local cinema for the Saturday Matinee.

A few rows in front of us were a group of black youths. The first real live black people little Kal had ever seen in his life.

I stood up on the seat, pointed at them excitedly and shouted at the top of my voice, “Look! It’s the Jackson 5!”.

The youths turned round and glared while my eldest sister yanked me down from the seat whispering for me to shut up. I insisted it was them until she explained that they couldn’t be the Jackson 5 because there was seven of 'em.

This story embarrasses me, but I think it says more about my parents and upbringing than me, personally. Still…
When I was around 7 or 8, in the lunchroom at school. another child and I were talking about some other kids being mean to us, and a little black boy overheard, and said those kids were mean to him, too, and I responded, “well, but you’re black”, as though that were reason enough to be mean to HIM, when we hadn’t done ANYTHING to deserve being picked on. At that point in my life I was under the impression that white folks didn’t like black folks, and black folks just had to deal with and accept that that was just how it was, and that little boy was just being silly for not realizing that. This was around 1988, by the way.

I felt embarrassed – and guilty – about the picture incident for years. Into early adulthood, at least. Not that I thought about it every day, or even every month, but when I did, I cringed inwardly.

I try to use African-American for cultural references (e.g. the Harlem Renaissance and Delta blues and the Civil Rights movements were “African-American” in that they were uniquely American but driven by those of African descent) and black for racially relevant comments (e.g. AIDS has killed millions of black people [for they’re far from all American] or “Alexandre Dumas and Peter Ustinov had black grandmothers” [because Ustinov’s was from Africa and Dumas’ was Haitian so they didn’t share nationality or culture) but I also use them interchangably a good bit. Personally I far prefer “black American” to either “black” or “African-American” as it’s more-to-the-point (if Charlize Theron was nationalized she’d be African American but I don’t think it would increase her chances of getting sickle cell anemia or the lead in a Tyler Perry movie).

I’ve been snapped at probably half-a-dozen times for using one term instead of the other, though ironically sometimes it was for using A-A (“I’m not an African, I’m an American!”). sometimes it was for using black (“Do I look black to you? My skin is brown. I’m Af-Am”) and half the time it was by liberal whites. So it’s probably insensitive of me to say it but I will here: If I say that Bill Cosby is African-American or if I say Bill Cosby is black, and I might say either one depending on which comes to mind, I don’t give a damn if or who it offends because if that’s the most offensive issue they come across that day then they’re blessed. It’s not a political or racial assessment of any kind on my part- it’s because I view the terms as roughly synonymous and for some reason his race was relevant.

Yes, I know what scientists say about race- it’s .000000000000000000000000001% [or whatever] of our DNA and technically doesn’t exist and all that jazz- but it’s the historically and thus sociologically damned important .00000000000000001% [or whatever] of the DNA and must be addressed and it changes about twice a generation (Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, biracial, multiracial, mulatto, and whatever the hell Lou Diamond Phillips is) so until it’s standardized and especially in spoken conversation I’ll use one or the other and there’s no rhyme nor reason why I picked that over the other one and I’m neither going to apologize or justify the semantic choice.

I had an unintentionally racially insensitive moment when I gave a presentation on recreational technologies and referred to how likely childless professional couples, due to their disposable income, were to be early adapters in the purchase high-end high-tech entertainment and how because of this many ads were placed in shows like Friends and in gay mags and others to capitalize on the Dual Income No Children (DINC) [I’ve also seen Dual Income No Kids (DINK)- sounds the same so take your pick) market.

An Asian-American woman (or Lou-Diamonds-Phillipish-American woman if you prefer) was incensed and asked why I was using that term and didn’t I know it was hateful? Yes, Asians tended to be a bit richer and higher tech, but I wouldn’t say that (her words) “niggers are more likely to buy certain hair care products or CDs” in mixed company because it’s a hate term and so is Dink. I honestly didn’t know what in the hell she was talking about and was stammering a non-pology.

Somebody explained, and I did not know this, that the woman was Vietnamese by birth and that dink was a very bad racial slur from the Vietnam War. I half-heartedly apologized for having used it and felt vaguely bad, BUT the fact that I had stated words to the effect of “dual income no children or DINCs to use the marketing term” and that the context should have made it clear I wasn’t referring to Asians in general or Vietnamese in particular (do the Vietnamese just really love FRIENDS or gay periodicals) made it at least as much her fault in my opinion.

And in an extremely famous story in my family when I was about 2-3 years old and was having dinner with my family ca. 1969 in Montgomery, the cradle of the Civil Rights movement and this before it was weaned and when places were just integrated, I pointed to black diners and repeatedly said “Mama look at those niggers” and as kids will do when ignored repeated louder “MAMA! LOOK AT THOSE NIGGERS!” When she threatened to spank me and turned to apologize to the African American black diners (one of whom was later revealed to be Lou Diamond Phillips) he supposedly answered (I’ve no memory of the incident) “Thank you, but to be honest… I think it was those niggers over there he was wanting you to look at” and pointed to another table of black diners (or maybe that’s where Lou Diamond Phillips was eating).

This one was directed at another person of my race, but it still is quite racially insensitive.

It was the seventh grade. One of the “cool” boys in my English class was picking on me when the teacher stepped out of the room. This guy was always viscious with the insults he lobbed at me, and this time he decided to really punch my buttons. He said I was so white-looking that all I needed was blue eyes and I’d be a white girl. I know on the face of it it doesn’t seem all that bad (particularly if you’re white) and the truth is that it SHOULDN’T be an insult, but it hurt a lot. Middle school is when racial segregation among friendship groups generally starts and an individual’s racial identity is in its embryonic phase. His comment got me all messed up inside; I didn’t want racial ambiguity to be added to the long list of reasons We Hate monstro.

After all the “oooooohs” in the audience died down, I cleared my throat and said, “Well, that’s better than being too black, like you.” Yeah, that was received well in a classroom full of black kids. :frowning: I basically confirmed to him, all my other bullies, and the few friends that I had that I really was a white girl–and a racist one at that! I wanted to die.

I was on a date with a light-skinned black woman several years ago. This was during a summertime heat wave and the topic of conversation drifted on to the weather. She mentioned that she had been at the beach several times the previous week to work on her tan. Surprised, and without thinking, I blurted out, “Really? You can tan?”

:smack: Yeah, I was a sheltered boy.

It was completely unintentional. It was the early 1970’s and I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. I was walking with my family along Chicago’s lake front, just a bit north of 31st street. We were walking in one direction and we passed a large group of black people heading the other way. To a small kid it seemed like a LOT of people. There was a phrase I had heard and it seemed appropriate: “there goes the neighborhood” I said to my dad, because it looked to me like the whole neighborhood was walking by us!

Out of the mouth of babes #376

When I was about 5 (1968/9) we moved back to Gibraltar from the UK. Gibraltar has a significant Moroccan minority population. Many of the women wear djellabas which include a scarf covering their faces from the nose downwards. One of my picture books had “a thief” with an illustration of a shifty-looking individual with a handkerchief over the lower half of his face. 5-year old me puts two and two together, and… "LOOK MUMMY, A THIEF!"

At least at the time most Moroccans in Gibraltar spoke no English, because they were still very recent arrivals, guest workers who replaced the Spanish workforce after Franco closed the frontier in the late 1960s. These days many of them, and their descendants, speak English as well as Spanish.

I asked an Indian friend in college what the “towel” he wore on his head was called. That pissed him right off. In my defense, I couldn’t think of the right english word (scarf) and instead translated the german word for it incorrectly (“tuch” which can mean towel or scarf.) Anyway, I was embarrassed.

After seeing the movie North Shore me and my friends took to saying “scrub it kook” (a quote from the movie) all of the time and we thought that it was really funny for some reason. During this time period I was hanging out with this Chinese girl and I said it to her but she took it as “scrub it gook” and she got really mad at me. I took me a very long time to explain the context to her, thankfully she was satisfied with my explanation.

I had a friend who was a grad student who had two roommates who were exchange students from Taiwan, and whose English was not all that good. I knew them, and knew that they were Taiwanese and not native English speakers.

They made friends with an Asian American guy who was, in fact, from the US and was in fact a native English speaker. But because I knew that the two roommates were Taiwanese, I got it in my head that he was also Taiwanese, and thus somehow was the dumb stupid American half of the stereotypical “Wow, your English is so good” “I’m from New Jersey” conversation.

The irony is that, if growing up in silicon valley teaches you nothing else, it certainly teaches you that there are plenty of people who look Asian and are native English speakers… ie, half my friends growing up.

This one is courtesy of my Dad.

We’re from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s made up of small rural towns for the most part. So my Dad is downstate near Detroit on a business trip with co-workers. They go to a restaurant that has cafeteria style serving, where you take a tray pick out your food and pay at a cashier.

The place is really crowded and the line to get food is quite long. Now since I was young he has a saying that he uses when he has to wait long in line.

At a bank he says “What, are they giving money away!?’

At the gas station “What, are they giving gas away?!”

So here he is in the restaurant. He and his co-workers are the only white guys in the whole place.

So he says in a loud voice

“What are they giving food away?!”

Right after he said it he realized how it sounded (to him at least). That black people lined up for free food or something.

They did stay and eat, but it’s a memory that haunts him.

1967 - Londonderry Northern Ireland - 5 years old.

Hiding in the bushes. Throwing rocks at catholic kids getting on the bus. Really hoping to connect.

Today I’m in Canada, married to a catholic, and raising my kids in a catholic school.

No wonder I’m an atheist and think it’s all a bunch of shite.

I wish I could say I was a kid when this happened, but I was in my early 20’s. We had just moved to Seattle from rural Iowa, and we were living in a low income housing project (old Holly Park).

I was having coffee with neighbors, most black, some white. It was 1968 and we were talking race relations, the demonstrations, etc. I wanted them to know that even though I was an Iowa farm girl who had grown up without ever seeing a black person, I wasn’t prejudiced.

So out of my mouth comes "But you people . . . “. What was going to come after was " . . . have every reason to demonstrate,” etc. I never got that far.

Teresa stood up, held up her hand and said “No no no, honey. You do not say that.”

“Say what?”

Set me straight, she did. :slight_smile:

Being white in beautiful Cameroon, race is an every day issue for me. I screw things up every single day, and I face forms of racism I never even thought were possible (for example, my whole town thinks I’m Chinese and follows me around saying “Hee-Haw”.)

Probably my worst moment I know of was when I was on a motorcycle taxi and a bush taxi started careening towards me. All I could think was “Doesn’t that idiot see there is a white lady on this moto!” It wasn’t until a second later that I realized that wasn’t the greatest thing to be thinking.

But I’m sure there are a million times I’ve screwed up and people have been too nice to point it out.