The Beauty of the Unanswered Question OR the Death of the Black People Head Nod

“How you doing?”


“What’s happening?”

“What’s good?”

As far back as I can remember, whenever I went out with my father —  be it to the supermarket or the post office, the hardware store or the flea market — whenever he encountered another black person he invariably greeted them with such a question. As we walked along the street he’d do so, adding a wave if it was someone he actually knew. The question was a question only in structure, it was and is rhetorical. It is there to go unanswered or answered with the same (or a similar) question. When in a rush or upon encountering someone who appeared unable or uninterested in speaking, my father would give the nod. It was and is a silent salute, a quick and quiet way to say “I’m black and you’re black and we’re both here.” I grew up with the nod and the greeting, and I knew that was part of the black social contract. From my teenage years onwards, it was something I did as often as I could do, and I especially strived to do in times where I should do it: those times when I encountered another black person in a largely non-black space.

As non-black spaces go, the tech world and open source worlds are right (white) up there. I rarely see people who look like me and when I do they are usually zipping pass in one direction or another with barely a moment to notice my presence. At times like this I try to make eye contact and offer some sort of greeting or at least a nod. The greeting and/or the salute seem to have been fairly well received until quite recently. As of late, I’ve noticed that there is a subset of young black men and women who seem to be quite taken aback when I walk by and quickly dash off a “How you doing?” Just yesterday I looked at a young black man in my co-working space and quickly said, “Hey, how you doing?” He looked at me with deer in head light eyes and responded “Fine and yourself?” Well, I never!  I immediately  felt it to be the equivalent of being shoved down into the dirt. The line was broken and I was cast out to sea!

After I recovered from the initial offense,  I returned to my desk and paused for a moment. Perhaps this young man was totally unaware?

In his BRILLIANT BOOK, How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston speaks of a “black employee known as The Denier”:

This person simply does not acknowledge her race at all, perhaps hoping that by ignoring it, she’ll never have to deal with any negativity associated with her race. While not explicitly combative with you, she’s also unlikely to be a useful ally, especially if she ranks above you. It’s not that she feels threatened by you. It’s that she feels nothing. So she won’t act to improve the situation at the company,either. Your best bet here is to accrue as much power in the company as you can use your position for good and undo some of the damage cause by The Denier’s apathy.

photo credit

I’d encountered this before. We all know those lost souls who just can’t or won’t publicly connect to people of their own race for fear of being lumped in with them in bad times or due to some sordid past history. However, until now, it seemed those sorts were the outliers. Now I think their ranks (or ranks of eerily similar ilk) are sadly on the rise. I have actually heard from young black Millennials (who grew up on the storied internet where “nobody knows you’re a dog“) that in many cases, especially the middle and upper class cases, grew up either not really realizing they were black or not thinking about blackness or race or racism. I guess this is what some people talk about when they talk about post-racial. It’s not a change in material reality; it’s a loss of consciousness that is likely only further abstracted by heightened economic class as well as parents who are ethnic Black and want to distance themselves from “lowly” American blacks by waving high their Jamaican or Nigerian or Guinea Bissauian (whathaveyou) flag. These are the black kids that I think are having the most shocking time with this new consciousness around police killings. They grew up around mostly white/non-black kids and did everything right and now their eyes are being opened and it seems they can’t quite compute what they are seeing. Whenever I think of black Millenials, I often think of black Millenial media personality Franchesca Ramsey and her video “Shit White Girls Say” (see below). It’s of course funny on the surface but tragic once you really absorb it and realize that she had to take all that in for years in order to gather such absurd material.

In the face of such offense, such incessant pinpricks of hurt (what some people are calling “microagressions“) what sweet relief it is for me to turn a corner and see a black face and connect for a brief moment. In that head nod and in that unaswered question, I can breathe for a moment. On receiving that salute, I am answering a deeper call. If a sincere answer to “How you doing?” is a mark of racial progress then I am calling the whole effort into question.

Shouldn’t we be pulling more people into the ritual creating a global network of people saluting and asking but never answering?

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