Politics & Race
Pity is the New Black: Throwing Away The White Guilt Thesaurus

I’m sure you’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve even done it.

Maybe you were watching a political candidate inarticulately pitch an empty appeal for the “minority vote.”

Maybe you were in a room with a group of well-meaning White people trying to figure out how they could reach “urban communities.”

Maybe you were reading an article by a neoliberal “social justice warrior” talking about the plight of the “underprivileged.

It is all the same thing. It is the new millennium, clean-handed way of saying “Black people” in an inoffensive way. It is a growing phenomenon but it all comes from the same place.

A few days ago Donald Trump stood in front of a crowd whose whiteness ranked somewhere between Klan-Rally Caucasian and Alt-Right Aryan and painted a picture of white people’s perception of Black communities. It’s a crime-ridden, scary dystopia of unemployment and shiftless negroes throwing gang signs where you can “walk down the street and get shot.”

Make no mistake, the tangerine-tinted autocrat was not being racist. He wasn’t even blowing a dog whistle. To many White people whose only contact with Black people are from their plastic-smiling co-worker in the cubicle next to them or from episodes of Law & Order, this is their view of Black people: Poor, single-parent savages stuck in a revolving ring of poverty, crump-dancing and drug deals gone bad.

A few years ago, talk show host Bill O’Reilly tried to assuage people’s charges of racism by agreeing to go to Sylvia’s, a soul food restaurant in Harlem, with Reverend Al Sharpton. Upon returning, Bill commented how astonished he was that Black people were actually like normal people:

I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship.

He even relayed to his fellow white people the incredible fact that, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’ ”

Much of America only sees Black people through the filter of a lens, whether it’s from a camera or binoculars. This country is still largely segregated in such a way that many people are disconnected from a sense of who Black people really are. If you are White in America, real, meaningful interaction with people of color is an option. If you are Black in America, it is mandatory. Therefore, the perception of Black people is largely curated from rap music, social media and reruns of “Good Times”. Because of this, there is the notion that neighborhoods with minority populations are crime-ridden, or dangerous. But they can’t say that out loud, so they call them “Urban.”

Even though 62% of America lives in cities, the word  “urban” is now synonymous with African American. Urban is a kind of music. Urban is a style of dress. Urban is scary. Urban is black.

Like the term “underprivileged.” It is not conservatives who love that word, because for them it would mean the tacit admission that privilege actually exists. Words like “underprivileged” are almost exclusively the linguistic territory of White liberal elitism. For them, it conjures up images of dark-skinned, piteous souls who–if not for “lack of resources” and being part of an “underserved community” would not need the bleeding hearts to lend them a hand and pass out a few more food stamps.

These words are necessary to them because referring to us as “inner city youth” or “minority populations” feels less icky than saying “Black People.” They can’t have black tie Galas to donate money to after-school programs for “Black People.” They don’t feel the superior self-righteousness when they take an Uber to East St. Louis to read to a classroom of “Black children.”


I once listened in on a conference call where I was the only Black person on staff. The person on the other end tried to commend me for showing him around, but he couldn’t remember my name. I could hear the hesitancy in his stuttering voice as he fished for an inoffensive way to describe me.

“The Black guy” I  interrupted. “You can say ‘the Black guy.’ ”

They don’t know what to call us, so the liberalism borne out of political correctness has built for them a glossary of synonyms they can use without the nagging sensation of White Privilege. The people who use these words don’t necessarily have malice in their hearts or evil intentions, they just use it as a subconscious placeholder for the word “different.” They usually have only experienced Black people at arm’s length.  It is not necessarily racism–it’s unfamiliarity.

Because I like to approach ideas about race from a logical, mathematical point of view, I often point out that race has no bearing on crime–it is largely a socioeconomic phenomenon. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, poor Whites commit crime at the same rates as poor Blacks. When I do this, however, I sometimes feel like it is a subtle way of justifying my existence to white people. It feels like I am trying to take the bass out of my voice, and hit the “r’s” at the end of words extra hard to make white people feel comfortable. That’s what they are doing when they use these words. It is a neoliberal way to say “Black” without having the guilty reminder that racism exists.

But here is the problem: These euphemisms are detrimental.

They obscure the fact that “Urban” neighborhoods are a result of the government policy of redlining that created Black neighborhoods that never climbed out of poverty. They sugarcoat the reality of the inequity between majority Black and  majority white school districts. They perpetuate the myth that Black people are uncouth, Black populations are dangerous and Black neighborhoods are sketchy. They whitewash a the facts that the large majority of Black people have jobs, don’t commit crimes and Black fathers actually spend more time with their children than their white counterparts. They are sideways methods of avoiding the head-on collision with the unsettling problems of race, prejudice and the two unequal Americas. It is cowardice and pity. If we can’t say it, we damn sure can never fix it.

Just say “Black”

And bring me some more motherfucking Iced tea.


About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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