When Is It OK To Ask a Black Person “Yo Is This Racist?”

Today’s post comes from a late night email from someone who asks:

I thought you might be a good source to ask, as I don’t have any meatspace peers that really think too much about this stuff…

Sometimes my dog likes to jump up onto the chairs at the dining room table while we’re sitting at eating. It’s super cute that he wants to sit at the table with us, but we don’t want him to do that. Sometimes I joke that he’s being “puppity.” I’ve recently started thinking that it might be problematic to even use a portmanteau of “uppity”. The definition doesn’t make the word explicitly racist, but I think I’ve only ever heard it in a racial context, so I think it might be a word that we just need to retire.

Thoughts?

On the one hand, this is a really insightful question from a white person who is obviously making an effort to examine race and racism in their lives and become less racist. So YAY! I totally applaud that effort.

On the other hand, sending this question out of the blue to (I assume), the only Black person you know because you were on a panel together one time talking about diversity stuff, is classic stage 3 behavior and highly problematic on many levels.

So let’s dig into that a little deeper.

As a white person, is it ever OK to ask a Black person (or any other POC), “Yo is this racist?” I can only answer this for myself[1], but as with everything, relationship makes a huge difference.

Generally I’m open to spontaneous conversations about race with my good, trusted friends and not too many others. And by good trusted friends, I mean maybe we dated for six months 15 years ago and have stayed close ever since. Or maybe we met in writing class and bonded over long talks about personal stuff. Or maybe you stalked me into being your friend when I worked as a barista and made yourself president of my fan club. The point is, if we have a good relationship, I’m way more likely to be open to such questions.

Outside of that framework, asking random Black people that you sort of know from the internet to be your racism barometer is actually way more harmful than using a racist word about your dog in the privacy of your own home.

When I read this email, it was late at night[2] and my actual, first thought was, I really don’t fucking care what you call your dog. I was tired, had just recently triumphed over yet another house project (but not without casualties), and was staring down a mountain of work I need to finish over the weekend. I really didn’t feel like dredging up or dolling out, “the official Black opinion” on anything because, SURPRISE! I never feel like doing that.

My second thought was just shock at the utter laziness. It literally takes less than 30 seconds to use the vast resources of the internet to find an answer to this question.

I struggled with how / if to respond, going in a circle through the options:
* delete
* ignore
* rant
* try to come up with an answer
* gently deflect

My first reaction was to archive and ignore. But my brain was already in overdrive and I really didn’t want this person thinking this was OK behavior to continue in the future. So I fished it back out of the archives and wrote what was (for me), the nicest reply I could muster saying I really didn’t care to answer and gently suggesting other resources.

So why does this post exist? Because I’m still annoyed and that annoyance is (once again) distracting me from my work. Anyone who’s been paying even the slightest attention to anything I’ve said in the past ten weeks, should have a pretty good idea what happens when white people ask me ignorant race questions which could be easily answered on their own.

But I guess you needed a reminder, so here it is. I don’t do Black-On-Demand.

If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘if you won’t teach me, how will I learn?’ here’s one person’s excellent road map. Or, since you’re here already, you can check out my social justice archives, which are also chock full of links. Ashe Dryden runs an intersectional feminist book club via Google hangout so you can talk to real people, if that’s what you’re hankering for. If you live in Portland and want to talk to Real Live Black People about race, try Race Talks.

My point is that there’s a time and a place to engage with people you don’t know about these things. Go find them.

Here’s what it’s like when I get a question like the one above:

My brain: Better remember to ask Jess if the cat litter needs scoop(YO IS THIS RACIST?) ing. Huh? What the hell?
(Repeat ad nauseum)

The problem with being part of any marginalized group is that really, you just want to be a person and live your life and get shit done, but people are constantly reminding you about ways that you’re ‘other’ and also wanting you to represent everyone in your group. That is not OK.

So is it ever OK to ask, “Yo is this racist?” I can think of a few scenarios in addition to the ones I’ve described above:

  1. There’s actually a site where it’s always ok to ask: http://yoisthisracist.com/ask
  2. If you’re worried that something you did or said to or around that person may have harmed them. By all means, ask about the incident.
  3. If you’re working on something that affects other people and you’re trying to eliminate bias / create safety.[3] For example, “Hey, I’m working a code of conduct for my meetup, and I could really use some outside opinions about it, do you have time to take a look?”
  4. If you’ve asked permission. If they’re up for it, great! If not, you haven’t totally derailed their day.

I encourage people who want to learn to use all the freely available information and to NOT pester people who’s work doesn’t center around education to take yet more time out of their busy lives to mend your ignorance. Make a little effort.

The articles on this site, and any conferences I attend and speak at represent the sum total of effort I’m willing to expend on educating people I don’t know about issues of social justice.

I write here so that many people can benefit and hopefully learn from it, (I hear it happens). Many many other people do the same. You can literally get a window into the lived experiences of people who are vastly different from you without intruding into their space.

Are you a man who can’t imagine that street harassment is really a thing? Go checkout Trudy’s twitter feed:

https://twitter.com/thetrudz/status/490177179758518272

Do you feel like you’re trying but you keep messing up and now you don’t even want to speak up? Julie has a great post for you.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, STOP BUGGING ME. Seriously. I’ve got shit to do. I even have planned, non-reactive articles I’d like to write on this site when time allows. But until I get some space, I guess these mental health posts will have to suffice.


  1. Because, just like one white person doesn’t represent the ‘white community,’ I don’t represent the ‘Black community.’  ↩
  2. Seriously, no more reading email after 8pm.  ↩
  3. As an example, a friend told me about a meetup for white people working on antiracist issues, but the poster for the group unfortunately lead with the heading “WHITES ONLY.” They probably could have benefited from some helpful copywriting tips from a person of color.  ↩

6 Comments

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.