Compliments are supposed to be praises about some of your best attributes. Who doesn’t like being complimented? Unless, of course, the other side of the compliment is a glaring insult. There are many different kinds of reprehensible perspectives (i.e. ageism, sexism) but today we will focus on backhanded comments that are loaded with racism. In the words of Kanye West, “Racism’s still alive, they just be concealing it.”
The saddest part about these kinds of backhanded compliments that are submerged in racial bias and prejudice is that the people offering the “compliments” are often unaware of how offensive their words can be. Their intent is to point out a seemingly positive attribute, when in actuality they are being terribly disparaging.
1. “You’re beautiful for a dark-skinned girl…”
… As if typically the darker your complexion, the more unattractive you become. Thank you for identifying me as an exception to that rule. Really, I’m humbled.
First of all, as soon as you insert the preposition “for” you should know that you are about to go off the charts on the obnoxious scale. It’s like my favorite saying, “I don’t want to be racist or anything, but…” The universe should have sounded a buzzer and hologrammed a gigantic “X” into your peripherals to warn you to stop. Since it didn’t, here’s some advice — telling a girl that you aren’t usually into black women but that you’re into her is NEVER a compliment. It’s colorism at it’s finest.
2. “Your hair’s amazing. Can I touch it?”
I didn’t realize I was an exhibit on display, but sure. Afterwards, can I touch your belly button? I’ve never seen such a penetrating and complex midriff opening.
I get it, I really do. Our society has a fixation with all things “exotic” and “foreign.” You don’t mean to be offensive and you’re even asking permission! But here’s the truth. Asking a woman if you can touch her hair like it’s some kind of pet dog is racist. Staring at her hair like it’s the eighth world wonder is uncomfortable. If you like it, tell her it’s pretty and MOVE ON.
3. “Wow … You’re so articulate!”
Ummm … thanks? I’m overjoyed that you find my ability to form complete sentences so impressive. Just wait until I actually start discussing my views on Donald Trump. You’re going to think I’m a genius!
This is a tough one because you might be saying this with sincerity; however, it’s essential that you ask yourself why you’re making this comment. Are you truly moved by the way she speaks or are you really impressed because you believe that other people that look like her are usually aren’t eloquent and are uneducated?
Unless she just finished summarizing her doctoral thesis for you, you may come off as condescending. The connotation behind this compliment is that you are surprised that she is well-spoken and well-informed because she is a woman of color.
There is a misguided perception in America that most blacks speak slang and are “ghetto.” Whether or not you agree with this perception, it’s one that exists.
Don’t sound so surprised when she speaks sensibly and just enjoy the conversation.
4. “You’re beautiful. What are you?”
I was once approached by a woman who stepped away from a group that was apparently debating my possible mixed race combinations. Despite being prefaced by how striking I was, it felt a little weird that they were taking bets on “what I was.”
Approaching someone and asking them what they are as if they are some kind of science experiment is just rude – that’s it. Don’t do it. That’s all there is to say about that.
5. “You look just like (insert celebrity minority that looks nothing like you)”
Unless someone is a doppelganger for a celebrity, in which case they hear the comparison all the time, you’re better off staying away from this comment. The best example I can think of is when a news anchor interviewing Samuel L. Jackson confused him for Laurence Fishburne. It’s that same attitude that caused the news anchor to generalize and not take the time to research the celebrity he was interviewing that can be offensive when you compare people to black or mixed celebrities.
At the end of the day, not everyone will be offended by the same thing or in the same way, but in most situations it’s better to air on the side of caution. If your intent is truly to give a compliment, steer clear of these inadvertent insults that camouflage as admiration. And ladies — if you receive said “compliments” you can and you should say how you feel. People will continue to make ignorant mistakes if no one ever calls them out on it.
*Originally published on Blavity.