She has gray hair

October 4, 2010

I was telling a white male faculty person about a professor who had given a lecture on campus. I knew he worked with her in the same college and I was trying to recall her name. “What does she look like?” he asked.  I said, “She’s about my height with gray hair curving like this (hand gestures)”. He began naming names of faculty I knew.  “No, not her, not her, not her”  I answered.  Finally, he said the name and I responded, “that’s who it is.” He said, “She’s African American.”

It was an odd moment as I pondered his comment, the ordering of the people he named, and his body language. I felt like the unspoken question was, “Why didn’t you say that she was African-American?”

One of the things I know about whiteness is that it hides in what it has dictated as “normal” and everything else is the difference, the exception, the not-normal. If you think this is much to do about nothing, try describing people of color without mentioning their race or ethnicity and see what assumptions are made by others.  Chances are the listener, particularly if she/he is white, will assume you are talking about someone who is white.

The professor may think there’s nothing wrong with using the African American descriptor for a colleague.  When I hear him describing  his white colleagues as “white” in everyday descriptions, I’ll be more inclined to believe him.


  1. Yes, I learned in one of my first anti-racism consciousness raising trainings to leave out describing people by race unless you always refer to someone as white as consistently as you do about any other race. And I know people assume you are talking about someone who is white if you leave out all racial references that is when you are talking to a white person.

    • That’s been my experience too, Mayda. It’s revealing to see how strange it feels for me not to describe people of color by race; the learned habit is so ingrained. It’s also true that using white as a descriptor for white people evokes an awkwardness within me and often with others who hear me do it. Thanks for sharing.

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