Compliments denoting our differences aren’t necessarily complimentary

I haven’t written in a while (my apologies). Today, I would like to share this article with you. It addresses the ill-conceived act of complimenting the beauty of a biracial person.

I am embarrassed to say I have been guilty of giving the kind of “compliment” the author discusses here. To be honest, I had never considered the implications of my well-meaning words. Looking back now I can see the ignorance in them and I am sorry for it. I have always held the conviction that when I think or hear nice things about someone, I say it (which is like the antithesis of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all…). It didn’t occur to me that my compliment could be insulting. Noted: sharing a compliment that denotes a difference between people may have the opposite effect it intends to create.

My mother always taught me to consider a person’s intentions in conjunction with their words, so I can only hope the recipient of my compliments knew I meant well. I am gratified the author of this article has a similar – and very well-rounded and compassionate – view of these sorts of comments: “Awkward. Well-intended. Poorly thought-through. A window into our shared cultural stuff about identity.

I have learned something very important today – something I won’t soon forget. I am sharing the article with my readers in case they have made this social blunder as well. We are human beings full of imperfections – the importance is that we work toward being better versions of ourselves when we see the error in our ways.

5 thoughts on “Compliments denoting our differences aren’t necessarily complimentary

  1. Hmmm. I don’t know about this one, Jen — I have to say I disagree with the author.

    While I can completely understand the historical context of these kinds of comments, and while I do think it is absolutely important, as you’ve said, to be aware of the cultural background and perhaps implied meaning behind these comments, I think it’s also a little disturbing that the author immediately interprets such a compliment as “anti-black.” She goes on to say:

    “…thought leaders throughout history, including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, have said that black-white mixed offspring are better, more attractive, smarter, etc., than “real” blacks and not as good or attractive or smart as “real” whites, Dawkins explains.”

    To imply, though, that a friendly stranger or friend saying your child is beautiful automatically means that they think so because they are “less black” is, to me, perpetuating racist assumptions. I say this from personal experience, because I too, have made these comments and even had conversations about the beauty of biracial individuals, and I have never once thought they were beautiful because they were “more white” any moreso than because they are “more black.” To me, it is simply noticing the beauty of an individual, regardless of race or ethnicity. (And yes, I would even make the comment about any mixed race, as the author tries to say that people wouldn’t make the same comment about an Asian and Jewish, or German-Italian mix. Why not? Beauty is beauty. It’s a compliment!)

    Sorry I didn’t mean to go off on this so much, but in my opinion the danger here is in training people to read between the lines and assume that innocent comments must have racist undertones. To me, that kind of over-analyzing keep racism present, because it teaches us not to trust each other and to “hang on” to our racist history rather than letting it go. I can honestly say that I do think many biracial children are beautiful, just as many white and black and yellow and brown children are. And I would compliment each of them the same — as a beautiful mix of the parents, whichever race/ethnicity they happen to be — with no implication that one is somehow better than the other.

    • I hope you will feel free to “go off” on stuff as often as you like, Raeanne, because you have some good points. I agree people can be sensitive to racial comments… much in the same way people can be sensitive to comments on weight, religion, and politics. And when a person is finding fault or undertones in comments that aren’t there, it can be problematic and run the risk of perpetuating an issue rather than resolving it. But I also think the author’s suggestion to ask, “Why do you say that?” is a very good solution to deal with feelings of frustration at these comments. It gives the speaker a moment to clarify why they said what they said, and it also gives room to the possibility that they were not implying anything racial, thereby correcting any preconceived notions on the part of the receiver. But truly, depending on personal circumstances and history of the receiver, one might never be able to convince them they implied nothing with their comments. In cases such as those, I choose to rely on what I know about myself, my intentions, and hope that one day the person will be able to receive the compliment just as it was intended: a series of thoughtful words strung together with the purpose of making them feel happy. 🙂

      I love your comments – thanks Raeanne!

      • Absolutely… great points, Jen. And I would underline the point about asking ‘Why…?’ — I am always, always an advocate for thinking before you speak and understanding how your words affect others, which is why I appreciate that you chose to share this article, and perhaps why it struck such a chord with me. 🙂

  2. My reaction bounces between valid issue and Raeanne’s view. When in doubt I think it’s best to be aware of the negative way comments can be taken and just state the compliment as PC as possible. I’m glad you posted it on your blog to get more people aware and involved in the conversation.

    • Thanks Sarah! I know just what you mean – I see both sides too. And it would be ignorant to say no one has ever implied anything racial in their “compliments.” You and I both know there are people out there who still hold racist views of both black people and biracial people (which is sad, to say the least). I can see why someone would be sensitive to these compliments, but reading into them unnecessarily is problematic to. My plan is to chose my words in such a way that conveys the compliment only, without qualifiers. Thanks for your comment!!! 🙂

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