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Friendly rules of thumb for race relations

Ralph Moore Jr. lays out the basics of racial harmony from the perspective of (tired) African Americans.

(I, Too, and Harvard)

As the racial integration train chugs along, after fifty-some years of progress in America, here are some simple rules to be observed by Whites who interact with African Americans in 2023 and beyond, to make relationships peaceful and interactions more smooth. Do take heed.

  1. Never use the word n****r; it is offensive no matter where you hear it, spoken or recorded—in rap music, for example—or in conversation. It is offensive and no one can give you “permission” to use it. Save yourself from a hostile reaction. Only use the phrase “the N-word.” Just sayin’.
  2. Never ask a Black person if you can touch her or his hair. The answer is almost universally “No!” Just say no to yourself and keep your hands to yourself.
  3. When a Black person tells you they went to this or that college, don’t ask the person if they graduated.
  4. When a Black person mentions their college to you, don’t ask if they went on an athletic scholarship.
  5. If a Black person introduces you to a sibling, don’t ask, “Same father, same mother?”
  6. By now, you should have heard not to put raisins in your potato salad and bring it to a cookout hosted by Black folks. It is never acceptable for Blacks: white potatoes, onions, celery, mayonnaise, and raisins don’t go together. Ever.
  7. Never, ever, ever talk about a Black person’s mom. As we say in West Baltimore, “Them’s fightin’ words.” Even if you’re a Black person’s work supervisor, for example, don’t say something like, “Didn’t your mother teach you how to come in to work on time?” Or, “Your mother never told you what lunch hour is? Not 90 minutes, not 2 hours!” The Black person will only hear “your mother” and be offended and, sadly, might quit in a memorable (and possibly painful) way.
  8. Don’t invade the personal space of Black people. Black folks take their personal space very seriously. Even if they like you, unless you are romantically involved: not too close, not too close. Step back.
  9. No, you cannot taste a Black person’s food at breakfast, lunch, or dinner in a restaurant. No.
  10. “Do you know so and so? He went to thus and such a school, too.” So and so is likely Black, the school has thousands of students, and the assumption that all Black people know one another is just plain crazy.
  11. Don’t ever ask a Black person if he or she ever wished he or she were White. I’ve never met a person of color who said she or he wished they could change their racial identity. Don’t ask. Most Blacks can’t “get the walk down” anyway, as Richard Pryor once said.
  12. Never call a grown Black man “boy.” And White men especially, don’t call an adult Black woman “girl.” These simple words were used in the past to demean and minimize us and we don’t like to hear these words describing or addressing us under any circumstance. No. Never. Black adults are women and men. Period.
  13. Do not say to a Black person, in jest or seriously, “What are you doing here?” as though the place you are in is restrictive. The other version of that question is, “Who let you in here?” That greeting is never fun for us and has never been taken as a tease. Think about the days of legal racial exclusion before saying that one out loud.
  14. At the movie theater, don’t feel the need to sit as close to Black folks as possible when you are sitting down in the nearly empty theater. I was once asked to stand up from my aisle seat by a woman who wanted to sit on my row. There was no one else in the theater yet. The row in front, the row behind was empty, but she wanted me to move. I refused her.
  15. Don’t describe a Black person as “articulate.” Black folks have been speaking English correctly for centuries. We got it. And the Ebonics phase, whatever that was, is long gone. 

“You be illin’” not to heed these guardrails in Black and White social interaction. White folks, keep a copy of this list in your wallet or pocketbook and check it out from time to time. And Black folks, be patient and persistent in correcting attitudes and behaviors.

I hope this is helpful. You’re welcome, everybody.

Ralph E. Moore Jr. is a lifelong Black Catholic, educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits. He has served on various committees on race, racism, and poverty for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a married man with two children and four grandchildren. He is currently a weekly columnist for the Afro-American and a member of the St. Ann Social Justice Committee. He can be reached at

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