If you’re a white person, and you’re talking to people of color about a prominent person of their same race or ethnic origin, you can’t ever be too respectful.
One year here in Seattle, it snowed on Martin Luther King Day. I was out for a walk, and I passed a car that was stuck in the snow. The three African-American women in the car were wondering how they would get to church on time for the service. A young white woman out on the front porch of her apartment building nearby said that if they were late, she was sure “MLK would understand.”
I froze for a moment. That young white woman actually referred to Dr. King as “MLK”? To a group of African-Americans? Who were on their way to a service to honor Dr. King? I’m sure she meant to be reassuring and understanding, but she came across as casual and flip.
I remember being so casual and flip in the same way when I was younger. So I felt really embarrassed, not only for this eager, confidently friendly young white woman, but for myself.
The African-American women were courteous to that young white woman, but I’ll bet they were tired of hearing yet another white person refer to someone so important to them in such a casual way.
The young white woman didn’t mean to be disrespectful, I know that. I’m sure she’d be horrified if she knew.
If you’re white, be careful about how you talk about prominent people of color. Especially if you’re talking to people of the same color, race, or ethnic origin.
Use the person’s full name, or their title and last name. If you’re talking to African-Americans, rather than saying “MLK,” say “Dr. King” or “Martin Luther King.” Or, if you’re talking about Condoleezza Rice, call her by full name or “Dr. Rice.” And say “Mr. Obama” or “President Obama” (and you can call him “President Obama” even after he leaves office; American presidents are addressed as “President” for the rest of their lives.)
Also, make sure you don’t sound like you’re speaking for that prominent person of color. Don’t say, “If you’re late, I’m sure MLK would understand.” Same thing if you’re talking about President Obama or Dr. Rice, don’t tell African-Americans what they would think or say in any situation or about a particular issue.
If you’re wondering why I’m giving you at this advice, it’s because too many white people refer to prominent people of color in ways that are too familiar. It can be offensive to African Americans, for example, if you talk about Dr. King in a familiar way, and you’re white; it was white people who tried to stop all of his work for civil rights.
I know that young white woman was trying to be encouraging to those African-American women, because they were distressed that they’d be late to the service in honor of Dr. King, and there was their car stuck in the snow, and they were in heels so walking would be difficult.
The best thing that young white woman could have done is to offer to help get their car unstuck from the snow, so they could get to the church in time for the service to honor Dr. King.