My latest experience with what I like to call the “fake liberal friend” or FLF began with a Facebook discussion of the conversion crisis sparked by the recent accusations of abuse of potential converts leveled against Rabbi Barry Freundel, a leader in the Modern Orthodox movement. As part of the exchange, my FLF noted that her mother belonged to the Conservative movement and held generally liberal views, but was unable to accept converts as truly Jewish.
“I think it may be a generational thing,” she wrote. “She’s 87.”
Jokingly, I replied, “Yeah. She’d probably still be calling me colored.”
I had based that comment on my background as a customer service rep for a major health insurance company, in a department that mostly served retirees living in Detroit suburbs. As my accent was not that which my clients typically associated with a “person of color”, they frequently told me things I believe that they would not have if they were aware I am Black. A good deal of the problem was that they had grown up in a time when calling Black people “Negro” or “Colored” was not only acceptable, but actually the preferred term. I think we all know what the alternative term was, and still is.
Because of their age, despite not always seeing a true need to inject a discussion of race into the conversation at all (for example saying “I left Detroit in 1964, after the Coloreds rioted” in the middle of a conversation about Viagra coverage), I wasn’t actually offended if a person born before 1950 called Blacks either “Colored” or “Negro”. It was generational. I get it.
However, my FLF went off:
“I was not raised like that. Wow. You are so hostile. You scare me.”
Now, I am typically pretty calm. But the idea that an 87 year old woman would not have used the term “Colored” seemed a little strange to me. Black people were calling themselves “Colored” in the 20s, and W.E.B. DuBois spent that decade campaigning for the name change to “Negro”, which slowly replaced “Colored”, until it was in turn replaced by the terms “Black” or “African-American” in the 1960s and 1970s.
So, I was in no way saying that my FLF’s mother was racist, but rather that she was a product of her times, and she probably wouldn’t have been likely to switch to the term Black at the age of 40, or African-American at the age of 50 or 60. Thinking about this made me a little angry, and so I responded:
“Honestly your lack of awareness scares me. I make a comment related to the actual terminology in use when your mother grew up, and of course, I instantly get slapped with #angryblacklady.”
Okay. That was probably not going to be getting me the Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon. But really? She’s saying her mother was more culturally aware than my grandparents, who passed away in the 1980s calling themselves “Colored”? And just to make sure I wasn’t selling the woman short, I asked my FLF:
“Just out of curiosity, what did your mom call Black people, if not the actual term they were going by themselves?”
At this point, my FLF said she didn’t want to participate in the conversation any longer, because it had “become ageist and offensive and filled with agitprop.” I thought that had ended the matter until I received a message in my private inbox:
“I would like to clarify that my mother called black people, Mrs. Fisher or Jeanette, or whatever name they were known by. I don’t think you’re an ‘angry black woman’. I just think you’re an ugly person. Crude and mean.”
Oh, you have no idea.
“So your mother, instead of saying ‘I feel really strongly for voting rights for Colored people or Negroes, or Black people’ named every individual Black person? So, when she was talking about Jews, she also just used personal names? You know how stupid that sounds right? Or maybe the sad thing is you don’t. I am an individual. I am also a member of several groups. I am a Jew. I am a woman. I am Black. If I had been alive in the 1920s, I would have called myself Colored. If I had been alive in the 60s, I would have called myself a Negro. Blacks honor our heritage by not erasing mention of the terms we used, even when we no longer consider them appropriate. That’s why we didn’t change the name of the NAACP. It stands for National Association of Colored People. You think the civil rights activists who came up with the name were less culturally aware than your mom? Ha ha ha. Please.”
And in her final riposte, my FLF answered:
“My mother is a quiet person. I cannot ever remember having any sort of discussion with her in which a person’s color was referred to, nor did we ever discuss the NAACP. I very much resent these assertions. I’m hurt by your treatment which I do not deserve and by the dismissive way you speak of my mother, a woman you have never met, something you do only to wound me. The ‘ha ha’ way you laugh at my pain is really vicious and unnecessary. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and the friends I brought home were not exclusively white. My parents were always kind and cordial to all my friends.”
Yes, friends and neighborhoods, my FLF was hurt by my pointing out that her mother probably used the most common term for Black people that existed during her mother’s formative years, and gave as *a defense* that she didn’t remember her mother speaking to her about race at all, although she was nice to my FLF’s Black friends. And that is why we must not forget the labels we were given in the past. Because others will not only forget, but will go out of their way to believe that these things never happened.
Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.