Who Are You Calling Black?

When racial descriptions go wrong?

Jeremy Helligar

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Photo: pxfuel

Black is beautiful, and it sometimes has distinct advantages, like helping me to stand out in a sea of White. This was reinforced several years ago during a New Year’s trip to Tasmania. After a day of sailing, my travel mate and I ended up in the wrong pick-up spot, where we waited an hour for our ride back to the hotel. When the car finally arrived, the driver told us she was able to find us despite our poor sense of direction only because she’d been given an excellent description.

Even before she confirmed it, I knew what she meant. It was hard to miss the “tall Black guy,” which is what the driver had been told to look for. That was one of many times I’ve been happy to have both distinguishing characteristics. Although I can tell my White friends are sometimes uncomfortable dropping the B-word around me (“African American,” which I loathe, is still considered the safer alternative), I don’t mind being called Black — when it’s relevant. It’s a perfectly legitimate descriptive word and, in some situations, a lot more useful than “tall” or “brown-eyed,” as was the case that day in Tasmania.

But there are times when “Black” can feel like loaded information. I once had a conversation at work with a group of White colleagues and one of them was telling us about a friend, also White, and her mysterious new boyfriend. He casually mentioned that he was a “hot Black” something or other. The moment the B-word was dropped, it started flashing in my brain in big neon glitter. (Sidebar: I’m not sure whether “hot” referred to the new boyfriend’s level of sexiness or his being at the top of his professional game, but for me, when a White person uses “hot” in the former sense alongside “Black” to describe a man, it’s hard not to feel objectified — but that’s a story for another post.)

I couldn’t stop wondering why we had to know the guy’s race. It wasn’t remotely relevant to the story. None of us were going to be picking him up at a pier in Tasmania that afternoon. Had the new boyfriend been…

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Jeremy Helligar

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj