(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.
So using them as the basis of teasing — and pointing out when someone embodies a stereotype — can feel a little taboo and a little edgy, which has a way of enhancing humor, at least for those who are in on the joke.
I think there's a lot of room for sorting out which stereotypes are harmless and which are funny and fine to joke about, but that would happen between individuals — there's certainly no general rule about what's "horribly racist" and what's not. A good friendship that's characterized by mutual respect and has already weathered some serious conversations about race and differences (I think that's key) could certainly be somewhere where this could happen. The fact that you're asking on Reddit instead of feeling this out with your friend suggests to me that you might not yet have that type of friendship, but that doesn't mean it's not a possibility in the future.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "Are Weight Comments a Nonwhite Thing?"