My Black Friend Can’t Swim: Funny?

Plus: Is black culture a cause for shame? The results of a Race Manners-inspired Reddit Ask Me Anything.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root— In the latest in a series of Reddit Ask Me Anything sessions, our Race Manners columnist, Jenée Desmond-Harris, opened herself up to more of your burning questions about race. Check out the conversation here.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi, I’m Jenée Desmond-Harris. I write The Root‘s Race Manners advice and etiquette column, where I do my best to tackle readers’ toughest and touchiest questions about the ethics and etiquette of racial interactions in a changing America. Recently I’ve looked into whether comments about weight are “a nonwhite thing,” whether hair care can be oppressive to black girls and some touchy topics surrounding interracial relationships.

Got a hard, weird, funny or confusing question related to race? I’ll see if I can answer it.

butchandthekid: Are you ashamed of mainstream black culture?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: No, but I think this is an interesting question, even more because of what it reveals about your thinking (which I don’t think is uncommon) than what it asks.

The assumptions behind it include 1. that there’s an obvious definition of what “mainstream, black culture” is that we all agree on (and I assume that it’s what comes from mainstream media, which is hardly an accurate reflection); 2. that “mainstream, black culture” contains some specific and unique things that are so problematic or lacking in explanation that they would cause shame; and 3. that an individual black person would experience that shame on behalf of the larger group in a way I don’t think we typically hear applied to white people, for example.

Maybe some better questions to consider would be something like, “Where do we get our messages about black culture and how do we decide what’s ‘mainstream’?” “Do we hold all racial groups to the same standards for ‘shame’ and do we ask individuals of all racial identities to answer for the groups to which they belong in the same way?”

Redsox933: Would it be considered horribly racist to tease a black friend that reaffirms a stereotype? Basically my 34-year-old black friend can’t swim and is afraid to even try.

JDH: Interesting question! I think there’s a reason that racial stereotypes make up the basis of so many comedians’ material. We largely avoid talking about them (for good reason — a lot of stereotypes are manufactured and perpetuated because of racism and don’t need reinforcing), we’re aware that they can cause pain and they make us uncomfortable because we all know how frustrating it can be to be seen as a representative or example of your group instead of as an individual.