The [black] lady [with the purple lipstick]

Although I have for many years rejected racial categories as social constructs and have made commitments to try to stop using racial language, I am not very good at walking my talk. Case in point, when referring to a friend that had visited my house at the same time as my sister, I said “the lady from the older black couple you met.” After a few more thoughtful seconds, I was able to formulate a color reference even more specific and with less baggage: the lady with the purple lipstick. But that is not what I said.

Color is too easy to notice. Now more than I can remember, the color of a person’s skin is an enduring symbol of a shared experience of oppression and violence for Americans. This experience promises to continue as the explicit and implicit racist factions within our society declare that they have no intention of retreating into obscurity. It seems inappropriate now not to use racial language. Despite the ridiculous and insidious origins of racial constructs, the consequences of the perception of race are profound, and they are very real.

Having a black appearing name can eliminate you from the final cut of applicants. Having a black sounding voice can inspire indignation in the listener. Having a black attitude can get you suspended or arrested or convicted. Having a black address can increase your interest rate. Having black skin can get you killed.

I am finding it more and more difficult to work toward a world in which our children have so many rich experiences of their friends that the last thing they would think to use as a reference is skin color. In many ways, it is my white privilege that has permitted me to try and ignore racial language. In quieter times, I might wax philosophical about how our tolerance of racial language, our institutional use of racial categories, and our media’s insistence on reporting the race of their subjects all works to undermine progress and distract from the real issues. I think this conversation has its time. Right now is not that time.

Right now is the time to recognize blackness, oppose our worse definitions of blackness, and celebrate the blackness of our friends, family, and fellow citizens. I’ll take a break from my intellectual pursuit and try again: Do you remember that beautiful, black diva with the purple lipstick?

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