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What an embarrassing mistake tells us about how we perceive race

Nancy Giles made a stupid mistake on national TV. But I almost don’t blame her.


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Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 24, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 6:01 am CDT


Last Tuesday evening, the internet collectively sighed at their TV and computer screens as we witnessed a conversation about awkward conversations about race, become awkward itself. Nancy Giles and Jay Smooth appeared on All In With Chris Hayes, discussing Starbucks‘ #RaceTogether initiative and the merits and drawbacks to burdening baristas with discussing race with coffee lovers.

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There was a minute or so of the conversation when things became cringeworthy. After viewing one of Smooth’s videos, Giles began to tease Smooth about his manner of speaking in the video and mentioned how some people might wonder about his supposed “co-opting” of blackness. Then came the awkward but necessary revelation by Jay Smooth—that he is, in fact, black—and the declaration that this conversation foreshadows the awkward conversations that would happen in coffee shops across America.

Giles has since been read to pieces all over the Internet. People called her an idiot, said she should have done research before going on the show (and I would have to agree), and even that she’s hypocritical for judging a book by its cover. (The best thing to come out of the moment, besides Smooth’s flawless handling of her blunder, is Giles’ shoulder/neck roll, which I’m sure will be used as a reaction .gif for years to come.)

Giles tweeted that she knew that Smooth is black and that she was actually referring to how Smooth spoke on his YouTube video, versus how he was speaking during the segment. There is quite a difference, but as a black man, he has every right to code switch.

If we decide not to believe her defense, then it is strange that she would not consider that he might be black, considering that 1) he was invited to the program to talk about race, 2) he makes videos about racial issues, one of which was shown right on the program, 3) his name is Jay Smooth, for goodness sakes, and 4) as many people have said, just by looking at him, it’s not that hard to tell.

But let’s assume that Smooth wasn’t on the show and that you didn’t know anything about him at all. If you were to see him on the street, assuming you were trying to guess his race, would your first guess be black?

Honestly, mine wouldn’t, though this doesn’t negate his blackness. After all, race is not at all rooted in phenotype. Black people come in all shades, have many hair textures, eye colors, nose shapes, lip sizes, etc. Nevertheless, because race has always been at the forefront of our country’s history, as it should be, I think most people see someone and automatically, perhaps subconsciously, put them into a racial box. It’s just that most of us are not on national television when we’re wrong.

Since September, I’ve been living in Madrid, Spain. Moving here slightly shifted my perception of what the phenotype of a white person is; as it turns out, white people are pretty diverse, too. Southern Europeans tend to have slightly darker skin and hair than those in the North. Many of the people I see on my commute to work, I would assume, would identify as Spanish, European, and white, through and through. But taking that same metro ride in NYC or in Washington, D.C., and I would assume differently. 

Part of me doesn’t blame Giles for her assumption—if she, in fact, knew nothing about him beforehand. Because I see people everyday in Madrid who look somewhat like Smooth, and if given a choice, these citizens of a former colonial power that implemented slavery and genocide in the Americas—and which to this day discriminates against darker skinned people—would gladly identify as Spanish first, and white second.

Black people are likewise an incredibly diverse set of people; therefore, it would be foolish of us to make assumptions of those in the black community who are lighter skinned. Lighter-skinned black people are often accused of not being black enough, or it is assumed that they do not face racial discrimination, both of which are incorrect. Walter Francis White, a founder of the NAACP, for all intents and purposes looked like a white man. But his experience, the “one-drop rule” of the early 20th century society he lived in, and his identity made him black. Despite what he looked like on the outside, his identity and experience as a black man motivated him to fight against lynching and racial segregation.

We’ve established that blackness isn’t about how you look. But that doesn’t mean that how you look doesn’t contribute to your experience as a black person. For example, someone who is very light skinned or multiracial/multiethnic, may feel that they often have to “come out” as a person of color or might be frustrated with inquisitive attitudes about their phenotype. “What are you?” sounds like something you’d ask someone in costume on Halloween, but it’s often asked of people who appear to be racially ambiguous, by someone who is unable to categorize them from sight alone.

The “what are you/how can you be black” questions that some black people get, when asked by other black people, serve a purpose. It could be curiosity, or maybe it’s microagressive judgment for not adhering to an arbitrary standard of blackness. But I can’t help but wonder if “Are you really black?” can mean “Do you and I really have the same experience?” or perhaps “Would we be able to understand each other?”

Despite white supremacy having a profound effect on all of us, lighter-skinned black people have historically held a higher status than darker-skinned black people. From Hollywood to the music industry, whether standing in front of a judge awaiting sentencing, or sitting in front of a recruiter at a job interview, lighter-skinned black people have immense socioeconomic and cultural privileges over those who are darker. 

The “I didn’t know you were black” might be simple ignorance, sure. But underneath that lies the sentiment of “Do you get followed around when you walk into a store?” or “Which one of us are white people more likely to feel threatened by?” I can’t assume what Giles’ thought process was during the All In segment, but should we be so quick to blame her for looking at a person with light skin, and knowing the privileges that come with that, assume that they are not black?

I would hope that we all take away how absurd it is to assume someone’s racial identity. But also, Giles’ gaffe brings up interesting points about colorism and privilege in the black community, how we are as diverse as ever, and that diversity makes our experiences similar, but not the same. 

Screengrab via MSNBC

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*First Published: Mar 24, 2015, 11:00 am CDT