Friday, February 22, 2008

Black on Black  

I had an interesting conversation with a person yesterday, and something they said really caught my attention. It probably would have stuck out in my mind anyway, but the comment was virtually identical to one I heard from a completely different person in a completely different conversation, and it got me thinking.

The person I'm referring to is black, and has only been in the area for a short time. We were having the sort of general chit-chat that you go through with anyone, and I asked how they liked living in Seattle. This person responded that it was “Not bad”, but even though it wasn't their favorite, it was “Much better than D.C.”

Naturally, I asked what was so bad about D.C.

The response was that our nation's capital was “Too dirty, and had too many black people.”

I kind of froze for a second, mentally processing what I had just heard. I asked, “What do you mean? You’re black yourself.”

The person didn't hesitate before stating “But they’re thugs, and there are a lot of gangs.”

Now, I've never been to D.C. and I can't say one way or the other whether this is an accurate picture of the city, but the thing that seems puzzling to me is that this person chose to describe the city as being too “black” as their primary response, rather than saying something specific about the crime rate, gangs, and so on.

I probably would have written it off as a slip of the tongue, except that this same comment (about a different city) was made to me by a completely different black person in the recent past, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post. This usage seems to be too much of a coincidence.

Although I'm not pure anglo myself, I generally identify as white in most situations. However, when I go to a bad part of town or some place I don’t feel comfortable in, I don't say that the place has “too many white people”… I’d probably describe it as having too many rednecks, too many skinheads, too many punks, druggies, whores, comic book nerds, hyperactive furries, angry fry cooks, or whatever... but it would be something very specific.

Although I'm not exactly sure what these chroma-descriptive occurrences represent, I do think they represent something.

At the risk of coming off as completely non-PC, a simple examination of this person’s statement seems to suggest that describing something (like D.C.) as “black” suggests negative connotations which might not mean much when factoring in a person’s internal biases, but are quite surprising considering the source. For example, this kind of statement would make sense to me coming out of the mouth of the Grand Goblin at a KKK rally, but threw me for a loop coming from someone who was black themselves.

As something of a word and language wonk, it seems to me that there are some issues to chew on here.

What next?

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