I was an adult before I felt comfortable saying (in a regular tone of voice) the word Black to describe a person. That means I whispered it for nearly two decades. And it’s not surprising. Why would I feel comfortable saying a word that was either regarded as taboo or so often associated with bad and undesirable circumstances? It felt like an insult.
I was theoretically raised to be colorblind.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Black, White, or green,” I was told. “We are all the same. What matters is who you are on the inside.”
But despite the sentimental statements, reality was plain as day for anyone with eyes. To me, Black people were different and rare in my environments. White people were the norm. Black people were more often poor and (reportedly) involved with crime. They made up the majority of the homeless people I saw in Philadelphia, and the majority of the people on the city buses that I did not ride.
It was commonplace for me to hear, “Lock ‘em up” (meaning the doors) when driving through a predominantly Black area of the city. What I saw and heard didn’t match was I was told.
Beyond this discrepancy however, potential conversation was further eroded by a conflicting concern for and distain of political correctness. No one wanted to be called out as a racist. Yet no one knew the “right” thing to say. So we all stayed conveniently tongue-tied and resorted to speaking in code saying things like “inner-city” and “urban” and “ghetto.” They all meant Black, but seemed somehow less offensive.
Now that I have children, I’ve given a lot of thought to the messages I want to impart about race and social justice. I’m convinced that language is an important part of the equation. How can you ever feel really positive and connected to something that you don’t have direct, comfortable, confident language to describe?