“When Is It OK to Call Someone Black?”

t-shirt by Steve Locke

“We must devise strategies to keep naming, interpreting, and confronting racism”. Beth Balliro answers a question sent to Steve Locke.


EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 11, 2011, The Good Man Project ran a letter by Steve Locke to GMP founder Tom Matlack titled “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race.” The post quickly went viral, gathering well over a quarter of a million pageviews. It continues to be read, shared and questioned today.

Recently, a reader, Scott B., read the post and had questions based on his own experience having to deal with racial issues. Steve Locke thought the question to be a valuable discussion point, but did not want to be put in the “black authority” position. So he asked for help from Beth Balliro, a fellow visual artist who also works with developing art skills in young men of color in urban schools. Steve and Beth are long-time friends and colleagues, have had many conversations about these issues, and Steve trusted that Beth would be able to move the discussion forward with the respect it deserves.

Scott’s question and Beth’s response is published below. We can think of few conversations more important than this one on The Good Men Project.


Dear Mr. Locke,

I am a 3rd career, 1st year math teacher in rural Kansas. I am 38 years old, and I grew up in a poorer area of Wichita (metro area), then lived in Columbus, Ohio and Glendale, California. As part of how I try to connect and educate my students, I try to get across to them a sense of the diversity that I have seen in America, that they themselves have not yet experienced. My school district is 96% white, and of the remaining 4%, most of those students are raised in white households as adoptive children.

Sorry to give a biography, I am trying to set up the context for a question of advice.

I had a student come to me this year after leaving her english class who asked me a question about race. She asked when is it ok to call someone black? I responded that I thought as long as the reference was descriptive of an individuals appearance for the goal of how know you are talking to the right person, or meeting them somewhere, that was ok. But to identify a group as “blacks do this” or “whites do that” or “Asians are good at math” (I had an asian adoptive student who would claim this, who I tried discourage her own stereotyping”), was to ignore individual differences in place of preconceived and prejudged notions about what it means to appear a certain way.

I have two questions. First, I am wanting to know if you feel I could answer that question better in a way that helps a high school student who has very little exposure to actual diversity be better prepared to be more empathetic in the future. Second, in your letter/essay, you make specific mention that you don’t think that there can be much good that can come from non-whites talking about race, because there are plenty of resources and discussions that have already occurred. Do you feel that the best way to educate young adults about being inclusive and sensitive is to refer them to previous conversations that people have had and to read literature? I understand that you will feel that it is not the place of one man to answer that question. But I am asking you anyways, because your letter makes me believe that you might be able to help me understand how to teach this topic better.

If you do not agree, I hope that you will forgive my presumption.

Scott B.


Dear Scott-

Steve Locke has asked me to respond to your inquiry regarding race and teaching and I hope you find some of my thoughts useful. As a career educator and white woman, it has been my goal to insure that the concerns of race and power are openly addressed in any learning environment, and it is from this persuasion that I interpret your letter.

It is my belief that the unspoken dominance of white-supremacy flavors the character and climate of most of our public schools. The foundation and function of schools, despite the humanitarian interests of many of us who work within them, is to stratify the classes and maintain the brutal hierarchies of our culture. Of course there are outlying schools, educators and outrageously transcendent students that counteract this reality—but they are rare.

Statistics overwhelmingly describe the unjust conditions of schooling and are easily accessible (simply view the websites of the A.C.L.U., Children’s Defense Fund, N.A.A.C.P., Schott Foundation). In your state, for example, merely 54% of Black males complete high school, versus 80% of their white counterparts. The promises of American Education have been doled out along lines of race with startling clarity.

It is the project of white-supremacy to make this clarity murky, and we must therefore devise strategies to keep naming, interpreting, and confronting the iterations of racism as they appear.

I am brought to another subject here, as I am reminded of a book that a farmer friend once recommended when I was having trouble in my garden, Weeds and What They Tell Us. In the text, particular weeds are named (as in a field guide), so gardeners can interpret the soil’s particular hospitability, and then confront these conditions by adding supplements to the soil. As an experiment, I am using this strategy to “read between the lines” of your inquiry and name and interpret the “weeds” that I encounter. I offer that it is your task to then confront them.

Weed #1: White Privilege Denial
It is interesting to me that you do not proclaim your race, yet you provide many other descriptive facts about yourself to “set up the context” for your question. One must therefore assume that you feel your identity, as a “3rd career” teacher, is more relevant to this inquiry about race than your own racial position. We are left to interpret that you are likely white, and that you think your whiteness is irrelevant. I encourage you to own and confront your white privilege.

Weed #2: Taboo of Race
The very nature of your student’s question, “When is it o.k. to call someone Black?” indicates a sense of taboo in discussing issues of race, which is predominant in white culture. That she addressed the issue directly with you and not in her English class, and that you inquired directly of Steve, demonstrates a sincere interest to counter this silence. It also indicates that your school is not a safe zone for processing these issues, or that you are unaware of local resources available to you. I encourage you to connect with your colleagues and allies, and most importantly that 4% “other” in your population. Building these bridges may initiate some solutions.

Weed #3: Oppression as Exotic
You describe your goal to “educate young adults about being inclusive and sensitive”. I offer that there is no better way to do this than to investigate the many ways that oppression functions in our schools. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and many other forms of hate permeate our daily experience, despite our demographics, and they are all interrelated. I encourage you and your students to embrace your town in “rural Kansas”, and the interior of your conscience, as the epicenter for these issues, as we all must.

It is only in the constellation of these epicenters, in the brave work we must do in schools, that our social healing can begin.

In solidarity,
Beth Balliro

Artwork by Steve Locke

…..t-shirt, 2007

…..oil on panel

…..12 x 16 inches

used with permission

About Beth Balliro

Beth Balliro is a visual artist and Assistant Professor of Art Education at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design. Her research interests include Critical Pedagogy and the development of artists of color in urban schools. More at balliro.com


  1. I think subjects of cultural oppression like racism are fascinating, in that their moral objective seems to trip over itself. I believe this is because people come at the issue from two different viewpoints: some people tend to concentrate on how the world should be, others tend to focus on how it is. There was an article on TGMP recently that explored the subject of race blindness. As I understood it, it was saying that people who claim not to see race are not only kidding themselves, but they’re doing the wrong thing, because race is a very real issue for every minority, and to ignore it means to deny the effects of racism. So, I’m reading this thinking that one should notice race and behave accordingly. But…isn’t our objective equal treatment of each other? So, if I’m white, (I am), I should notice race but not acknowledge it, because a non-white person wants to be treated equally, but not really, because I need to be particularly sensitive without pretending that I know what it’s like to be a minority…dance, monkey!!…..

    Yeah, I said that. And I know what some people are thinking; and it illustrates part of the problem. If you think I’ve gone off the deep end of the racist pool, then please pay closer attention: I’m referring to MYSELF as a monkey being told to dance. The way I see it, we’re all just glorified monkeys anyway. I love monkeys. I love me. I love you, too, (when I’m in a good mood–I’m no saint).I don’t want anybody to feel pain, especially over something so superficial as race. So, because I care, I do make every attempt to be sensitive and inclusive and even bend over backwards sometimes because I know I don’t have to put up with some of the BS minorities do. But I can’t be everything every minority wants me to be if every minority doesn’t agree on what that should be.

    The thing is, most people can relate to some minor minority status, no matter who they are. I, for instance, have considered myself as a short man for most of my life. I’ve taken offense at society’s preference for tall men. That may be a small thing by comparison, but on some level it’s very similar. As a short guy, it’s natural for me to resent society for this. But how far do I take my resentment? Do I let it consume me, define me, make me think everyone’s “looking down on me?” (sorry for the pun) At some point, it IS just something I have to live with. Certainly, people live with a lot worse. But I think it’s a human tendency to look for reasons to justify one’s “shortcomings” (sorry again), and if you have a large movement like civil rights, you’re going to get those who define their whole existence in terms of their “disadvantage.” And that’s too bad for them, because by doing so, they shut themselves off from the spirit of brotherhood between races, and actually hinder their own cause in the process. They would be better served to reserve their righteous indignation for truly egregious examples of racism. You don’t want to slam the race card down on a 2 or 3; wait for a king or queen or something. Because the 2 or 3 is probably more likely to be something YOU heard rather than something THEY meant, if you know what I mean, and that just puts up an unnecessary barrier. And I really WANT to live in a country devoid of racism, too, and it bothers me to have to wait until the pendulum of logical fallacy finally stops swinging.

    When I do encounter (read about) this over-sensitivity, there’s a part of me that wants to meet it head on with some challenging rhetoric, you know, so I can get their attention, so we can get to the meat of the problem. But you can’t say anything somewhat shocking and be given time to explain yourself, because these days, most people only read the headlines, don’t they? So mostly I don’t say anything much. But you know, black is (perfectly) beautiful. And I think I speak for a lot of good white Americans when I say I’m glad to have fellow Americans of all races. [Let’s have a bunch of taupe-colored babies together and get this damn racism over once and for all!]

    My dad had an odd mix of philosophical liberal activism and old school Depression era sensibility. I picture him, as he would look sometimes, with an expression of disbelief, disgust and disappointment–you know the one: it’s the look Bill Cosby gives when he talks about how his children have “brain damage.” I want to convey that look to racists in general, because racism is just…stupid. Because racists are, I think, coming from the same desire to justify their own shortcomings. They feel they can use race as a scapegoat for their own personal failings, as a means of blaming anyone but themselves. Pitiful, really.

  2. Kristal says:

    In most cases if a white person describes an interaction with another white person, they don’t find it necessary to mention the race of that person. If you really think it’s necessary to mention a person’s race, then you should. Example: “There is a 3 year old boy missing – he is black, with short hair, white shirt and jeans.” Example: “A Native American man told me about his tribe’s history and spirituality.”

    Bad Example: “An Asian lady cut me off while I was driving today.” The race of that person is not relevant unless you are trying to bring attention to a stereotype or generalization. Consider that the race/ancestry of a person does not necessarily mean they were raised in a culture typical to that race or that their nationality can be assumed – especially in countries with diverse populations. Every person is an individual that should be evaluated based on their own merits and qualities.

    • Hank Vandenburgh says:

      The person’s race can also be mentioned for reasons of “coloration” (as I’ll call it.) For example, in a short story I wrote a black man had committed a murder and was on a unit for the criminally insane (the majority of people on this ward were white and I mention them in other parts of the story – they did bad things too.) The man, who was schizophrenic, busted up some furniture and began to assault another patient. He was very large. This actually happened. I don’t consider it stereotyping. It’s better writing to add details. I don’t like the way that anti-stereotyping flattens language. In essence, I don’t feel a need to distort language to reproduce language-liberalism.

  3. Warren Wright says:

    I am disappointed in the answer. As a white male educator, I got into trouble once for describing a young male child as a “black boy.” I didn’t now how else to describe him after he was sent out of the library for not following directions. My suggestion is to ask the non-white person in question how they identify and call themselves. President Barack Obama is the son of an African-American man was raised by a white mother, but he identifies as a black man. Why can’t I call him a black president?

  4. Roger Torbert says:

    I thought about this conversation as I read this post by Marilyn Rhames in EdWeek this morning – “When an African American Teacher Just Feels Black”.


  5. PursuitAce says:

    Whatever happened to African-American? Did I miss the memo? It seems we’re going backwards.

    • Hank Vandenburgh says:

      African-American, as near as I can tell, was cooked up by elitists. Most black people prefer black.

    • spidaman3 says:

      Most black people prefer to be called black and African American is something else.

  6. When is it OK to call someone white?

  7. What Thomas Sowell said…

  8. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Forgot to add followup. Sorry.

  9. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I think that the privilege discourse is basically divisive. Also, it individualizes and psychologizes problems of inequality. Virtually every person I’ve ever heard discuss white privilege was white, and some were getting a lot of money to speak on it.

    • People get paid a lot of money to do this? You will have to introduce me to these people or their employers. All the people I have met in this field are volunteers or over worked and under paid as their pay comes from CBO’s and grants. But they keep at it because making a difference is more important than status or income. I love presenting for an organization that includes thus message, but the $4500 a year cap on the stipend doesn’t exactly allow me to quit my other work and do it full time. But I would if I could.

      • Hank Vandenburgh says:

        People like Jackson Katz, Robert Jensen, and others receive over $10,000 for speaking engagements. Note that these persons are men, which I just realized. Tim Wise probably also receives honoraria in this neighborhood (or more.) As what I’d call a labor liberal, as opposed to a cultural liberal, I’d like to see the emphasis swing back to the critique of major political-economic institutions, as opposed to just touching up individual behavior. To me, it’s a distraction. Much of this winds up being middle class whites preaching to poor or working class whites. Paradoxically this makes the targets feel stupid. Real alliances can be forged between the races, but I don’t think a psychologistic approach is the right one.

        • Yes, total agreement. Less behavioral talk about who should say what, under what circumstances, and more about how academia produces more socialists and elitists than any truck driving academy. Also more about how our socialistic-political-cultural economy is related to our problems with labor and capital.

    • Often too much focus is on the white in the discourse and not enough on the other privileges such as wealth. Being white helps, being rich helps far far far more (in current times). Being white + rich is a double combo which realllly helps.


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