Backstory: The AQ’s Cedric Noël is black. Yes, we went there – he goes there too

Cedric Noël says being called “black” isn’t offensive. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

I don’t call my friends “dawg” or “homie.” I like to think my friends are people, not part of the canine species. I don’t like saggy, baggy jeans — let’s be honest, those things are a hassle to walk in. And I definitely don’t endorse the blatant subjugation of women in rap music videos.

But as a black man, I’m supposed to like those things, according to a predominantly white society that seems to have their expectations of me.

Almost all my friends are white and for a lot of them, I’m the only black friend they have ever had. That doesn’t bother me either.

Whether we’re friends because our interests match up or because we spend a lot of time with each other, awkward racially charged moments happen, and more than most people think. In fact, most people I meet usually go out of their way not to offend me — most of the time.

***

I don’t understand why so many white people in Fredericton are afraid to call a black person “black.” I’ve never heard of anyone who was afraid to call a white person “white.” But the double standard makes my white friends come up with alternative ways of describing a black person.

I’ve heard people slowly mumble, “Oh he’s…darker,” or call a black person African, which in itself is extremely political, and a lot of the time just factually incorrect. And then there are my two personal favourites: “African-Canadian” or “Afro-Canadian.” Afro-Canadian? Really? You’re telling me you would rather go through the trouble of calling a black person Afro-Canadian than black?

This year I’ve found myself repeatedly explaining to some of my newer friends that calling me black isn’t offensive. At first, I’ll hear them describe me as very tall, which is also true. Then I’ll hear them describe me as black and then chuckle, almost like a little kid who just swore in front of his or her parents for the first time.

I’m not going to lie; I’ve given a lot of people a pretty mean stare after seeing them do this. It’s insulting that someone would feel guilty after calling me black. It’s not like being black is a bad thing.

It baffles me that the word “black,” used daily to describe the lack of colour, has taken precedence in offending someone over a word that was used by white slave owners in the United States. Just because black people – mostly in the United States – use the “N” word to address each other doesn’t mean white people, if anyone, should use it.

I’ve been called that word far too many times and as much as I’m not a black American or lived during slavery, when someone addresses me with that word, it makes me feel insignificant. It’s a word that carries so much history and context and one that doesn’t belong in the 21st century.

So the next time you see or talk to a black person, do yourself a huge favour and save everyone a whole lot of awkwardness and just call him or her black. It’s fine.

***

I never understood it: why we’re so intrigued by our differences. Whether it comes down to race, gender, sexuality or even our taste in music. We’re so focused on what sets us apart rather than what brings us together. In my experience, if you open your eyes up for just a little bit, you might realize how similar we are – no matter how cliché that sounds.

There seems to be an impulse to constantly set ourselves apart from others or to fit in with a certain crop of people.

When I look at my three closest friends, we have practically nothing historically or racially in common. None of us share the same ethnicity and only two of us are from the same province.

When we finish university, I don’t think any of us will be working in the same field. But somehow they’re the closest friends I’ve ever had.

And the topic of race?

Well it hasn’t really come up and I don’t think it ever will.

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  • Raph

    On an amusing note, when I was younger (around 6), I used to refer to myself and other white people as "light beige" and black people as "dark brown." I tried to do this sort of thing with other skin colours as well. I just thought "black" and "white" didn't make sense. Later on I realized that to make sure we don't overcomplicate our lives, we sometimes have to resort to generalizations and that it's not a problem in this particular case.

    I think one of the reasons some (many?) people feel uncomfortable with saying "black" (ironic considering the discomfort it creates for you and others) is that they may have heard a black person refer to themselves as something else. For example, when I lived in the U.S. I definitely heard black people use the term "African American," at least occasionally.

    Then there's the problem with official documents, which use the word "Caucasian" for white people (I can't remember whether the term black or "afro/african"-"insert nationality here" is used). I find the use of "Caucasian" to be really ironic, considering its racist origins, but there may be more to the reason of its use than I'm aware of. I think the fact that white people are referred to as Caucasian rather than "white" in official documents makes some people feel uncomfortable using "black"/"white", though the discomfort is usually more apparent for a white person using the term "black," likely due to reasons covered in the next paragraph.

    Finally, I think that people often feel the need to tiptoe around these terms because, as we grow up and hear about the racist atrocities that have been committed throughout history and occur in the present in many parts of the world, people sometimes feel ashamed of -themselves- for the actions of people in their past. This leads to a fear of offending others whenever they say anything even remotely related to race, which consequently leads to the tension you describe. It's unfortunate, because I think they shouldn't be ashamed of themselves, but simply remember the mistakes that have been made so that they aren't made again.

    I think people who read your article might find themselves more comfortable in the future, though! 🙂

    By the way. I didn't think this whole comment through a bunch or edit it much, so I apologize for any silliness 😛

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