Hey – want to watch me stick a fork in an electric outlet? ‘Cuz that’s pretty much the same thing as being a white person who talks about black folks, right? Or at least some would have you think so. But I’m going to do it, because African Americans are forever getting dumped on in our society and are rarely called out for all the things that are great about them.
Now, before I get started, allow me to provide proper cover for myself. For those not in the know, I’m married to a black man. I have 5 mixed race kids and two African American stepsons. So if nothing else, my “I have black friends” creds are actually solid. (I’ve written more about my experience with race here and you can learn more about my $.99 ebook on race in American here.) Of course, there is as much variety among black folks as among any other group of people. I’ve known sweet, shy, reserved black women and loud, sassy, confrontational black women. Macho black men and nerdy black men. And the things I’m going to list here aren’t universal. There are always people who go against the grain. But as a general rule, these are things which I have observed to be common among black folk I have known that are not nearly as prevalent among the white folks I have known.
Of course, every positive trait has a dark side when pushed to far. My goal isn’t to idealize African Americans, but like I said, we continually dump on black folks and discuss problems in the black community. For this post, I’m just focusing on things which I personally appreciate about black folks I have known. So having properly covered my ass, here goes:
1. They respond to your problems with grace and understanding.
Probably because black folks have had to deal with so many really serious, awful problems for so long, they aren’t particularly phased by your problems. Usually they’ve heard or seen it all before – and worse. And if your life is going to hell because you did something wrong, well, the black folks I’ve known probably disapprove of your dumb choices as much as anyone else. But they also know that you’re the one who is going to have to live with the consequences of your dumb choices, so there’s really no point in piling on. Better to help you move forward than waste time berating you much less exacerbate the problem by turning you out. In my experience, if your life goes all to shit, you’re much better off going to your black friends or a black church for support than to your average middle class white person or church.
2. They tend to be more tolerant and less put off by people’s quirks and oddities.
It could just be the particular black folks and the particular white folks I’ve known, but I’ve found that black folks seem to be more willing to just accept people as they are without feeling the need to express disapproval or pressure others to change. “That’s just the way he/she is” is a very common sentiment. Not only that, but I’ve seen a real willingness to not simply tolerate, but enjoy people’s oddities and quirks. To laugh without being mean or even be challenged by people’s differences. To understand that sometimes negative traits are the very things which also produce positive abilities (“stubborn’s just the other side of determination”).
3. They’re often quick to offer praise and encouragement.
I guess when your chances to shine have been limited by society and the culture at large is only willing to reflect negative messages back at you, you have a greater appreciation for the value of building people up. The world hands black folks enough criticism and critique, so it seems that a lot of black folks have chosen to respond by doing just the opposite and focusing on the positive they see.
4. Black folks have a willingness to be open and real.
I have white friends who I have known for years who have almost certainly had terrible things happen to them but would never share them. But most of the black friends I’ve had, once they’ve sized you up and decided that you’re good people, are open books. Which means it’s OK for me to be an open book as well. I don’t have to worry that I’ll share something which leaves me thinking I’ve revealed too much or which is so shocking that it makes the other person uncomfortable (see #1).
5. Good instincts.
I was raised, like a lot of white women, not to trust myself. I was taught to discount things that made me uncomfortable as probably making too much of nothing and to think that other people could probably see me better than I could see myself. The black folks I’ve known don’t do that. Instead, they have learned to rely on instincts to stay safe in a hostile and capricious world. And having practiced using their instincts to size up people and situations from childhood up, they tend to have really good instincts. My husband’s family is more than a little bit crazy, but if they tell me that someone is good people or that a person is no good, I trust them.
6. Comfortable with sexuality.
Vilifying black sexuality has practically been an American pastime for several centuries now, but this is actually something I really appreciate about the black folks I’ve known. Pretty much every white person I’ve known has joked that their parents had sex exactly once for each child they had. I don’t know any black person who harbored (or even wanted to harbor) any such delusions about their parents. People have sex. Old people, ugly people, fat people, poor people, nice people, mean people, smelly people. It’s just part of life and something we all do. And while I was caught completely off-guard the time my sister in law asked me if I thought my husband was sexy and stammered like an idiot in response, I think that this frank acceptance of sex is a healthy, positive thing.
7. Creativity with words.
My husband and the friends he grew up with would do something they called “playing the dozens” which was basically an insult competition with each person engaging in spontaneous wordplay to come up with the most biting and creative insults possible. Which may not be the kindest pastime ever invented, but creating good insults is its own art form. Doing it regularly will teach you to use words creatively far better than any writing course ever could. As a writer myself, I particularly like and enjoy words. And black folks habitually find ways to use language creatively and often unexpectedly. I get comments fairly often on my writing style and part of that comes out of having spent time with African Americans and having absorbed some of the idioms and patterns of speech which I’ve heard there. Plus, my degree is in literature, so I am semi-qualified to declare that the very best literature of the 20th century was written by African Americans.
8. A spiritualized view of life.
Black folks are a bit notorious for their tendency to embrace superstition and conspiracy theories. But the other side of this is that many black folks understand their lives and the world in spiritual terms which really resonate with me as a spiritual person. They are more open to recognizing the ways that the Spirit works and moves. Making choices for reasons which aren’t entirely rational, but are spiritually driven is something which is accepted and respected. Whether it’s man-made or God driven or demoniacally empowered, there’s more to life than what’s apparent on the surface and most black folks seem to know and respect that.
9. The economy of black folks tends to line up fairly closely with God’s economy.
I’m not so much talking about economy in terms of money here. Rather, I mean the economy of what is valuable, desirable, worthy, etc. God’s economy is rather upside down. The first are last, the last are first. You give up your life to gain it. When you are poor, you are blessed. Rejoice in suffering. Those of us who enjoy living in a system which was created largely by and for us can often avoid being last, losing our lives, being poor and suffering excessively. But African Americans have never had that luxury. Which I think means that they have been in a better position to embrace God’s economy. To accept the upside down nature of God’s ways more deeply than people who can avoid being last if they want to can. They know that being last, being poor, having your life taken from you and suffering don’t necessarily mean that you’re failing at life. And it’s certainly not the final word.
10. Black folks are usually quite good at understanding how other people are going to perceive them.
I am terrible at this. I cannot tell you how often I have been caught completely off guard by someone who responds to me in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I’m really good at putting myself into someone else’s shoes right up until it comes to anticipating how they are going to experience dealing with me. Then I’m clueless. I make an observation that I think is neutral or even positive and it gets taken as an insult. I’ll think I’m being nice and trigger the other person’s every insecurity. On the other hand, my husband and most of the other black folks I know are quite aware of and tuned into how other people are going to experience and respond to them. I’m sure it comes from moving around in an often hostile environment and the often heavy price black folks pay for getting it wrong. I sometimes get irritated with my husband for saying it, but as a white person I’ve been able to walk through life being pretty clueless. But the flip side is that my husband is an absolute master at navigating social interactions in a way that I will never be. Some of that’s personality, but some of it really is the difference between being white and black in this country.
So, there’s my list of stuff I appreciate about black folks. I’m sure I could think of more items to add if I thought about it, but I think this is a pretty good start. Hopefully I haven’t inadvertently insulted anyone.
Now, I’m not simply sharing these things here to give my white person stamp of approval to beleaguered black folks. Rather, actively seeking, noticing and valuing the gifts which people different from myself bring is part of my job as a functioning part of the body of Christ. It’s no secret that the body of Christ is shockingly divided by race. Scriptures describe the church as a body. Too often, we read that as applying to our own particular congregation and our giftings. As if each one was its own body, having within it all it needs. But really, the body is much bigger than that. And it does have many parts. It has different nationalities and races and classes which make up those parts. As such, learning to integrate the church is going mean learning to appreciate the particular gifts and strengths that these various and differing parts bring with them.
Too often, we want to homogenize the body – find a way to make black folks more like white folks and Asian Christians more like American Christians. But really what we ought to be doing is looking out for what other parts of the body have to offer that we’re lacking. What bit of truth they have a more solid grasp of than we do. What they know and understand that we’ve been blind to. We need to be actively looking for these things and expecting to find valuable gifts that God has brought forth among all different sorts of people. So take my little list as a starting point.
But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” . . . So that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:18-21, 25-26