My whole life, I grew up in a predominantly white town, went to predominantly white schools, and, to continue the pattern, currently attend a college in which — you guessed it — the black people are far and few between. I never had any black friends growing up, and at the time, it didn’t seem to be a problem to me. I always have and always will accept the people around me — not on the basis of race — but how they treat me. However, in any situation where you are the black sheep (literally), there will always be people who will point it out. Sometimes they point it out in a mean way, but more often than not, I’ll receive something that someone thinks is a compliment, but is actually more of a slap in the face. A backhanded compliment, if you will. So, today I thought I would discuss three compliments that you might want to give to a black girl are actually insults.
1. Your hair is so beautiful! Can I touch it?
Yes, the first part is a compliment. I do appreciate that you appreciate my hair. However, by asking to touch my hair you’re making me feel like an exhibit in a museum. Rarely do white girls get asked to have their hair touched, which makes me feel like I’m on display. As a black woman, I sometimes feel as though the only thing people can comment on is my hair. I understand that many people are not incredibly familiar with black hair, but in the end it’s just hair.
2. You’re so pretty for a black girl!
Would you ever say to someone, “You’re smart for a blonde?” Of course not! That’s what this compliment feels like. I understand that you’re trying to use my blackness as a positive adjective in describing my looks, but in saying “You’re pretty for a black girl,” you’re essentially saying, “Most black girls aren’t that pretty. But you are!” Many of my white friends were horrified when I told them that this is a compliment that I have received — but nonetheless, I have. So, if you want to tell a black girl that she is pretty, say just that.
3. You’re so well spoken!
This is the most challenging of the three, because it is often one of the most subtle. Despite the common fear, I tend to actually enjoy public speaking. In high school, I gave workshops on body image at venues ranging from my high school to national conferences. Although I was a junior, I often came off as a college student. My ability to maintain a together, professional demeanor often earned me comments about being well spoken. Again, I am not one to turn my nose up at compliments; however, this is not a compliment. While there is nothing wrong with the phrase as it stands, it is the common application that raises issues. In popular culture, you never hear of someone referring to a white person as well spoken. Telling me that I am well spoken has the underlying message that people of color cannot generally speak well. This is a comment to avoid altogether.
While these are not the only “compliments” that should be avoided, they are the most common comments I hear in every day. I am fully aware that often times, people don’t mean any harm in these comments, however they affect people in a way that can become deeply rooted. So, the next time you want to compliment a black girl, compliment her like you would compliment any other human — because that’s all she is. Human.