The word “boy,” when applied to grown men of color–particularly black men in America–carries historical racist freight. It was used by slave owners as one of many ways to establish dominance over their slaves. After slavery’s abolition, it continued to be used by white Americans–especially in the South–in the same manner and for the same purpose. Even after the days of the Civil Rights movement, “boy” had become so ingrained in white America’s vernacular that it continues in many corners of the nation to this day to be used simply as shorthand for “adult black male.” There have been countless times in my adult life when I’ve been referred to as a “boy” by white people. Now, these people meant no harm in saying that. They weren’t racists. They weren’t trying to establish dominance or mastery or even social standing over me. It’s just that to them, a black male is a “boy.” Regardless, it’s not okay. The reason it’s not okay is that the word “boy,” when applied to an adult black male carries historical racist freight that cannot be shrugged off by good intentions or ignorance. It’s great if you “didn’t mean it that way.” That is much better than meaning it “that way.“ However, when it comes down to actually saying it or not, your intentions don’t matter.
Again… your. intentions. do. not. matter.
There might actually be people who don’t use the Confederate Flag in a way that’s not at all connected to racism, but that doesn’t make displaying it with “pride” any less offensive to black people. In the same way, good intentions don’t take away the sting away from “boy” when it hits a black man’s ears or eyes.
One objection as it might apply to the particular case I’m talking about is this: “But Brian Banks WAS a boy when this happened. He was 17!” Yes, he was 17 when the allegations of rape were brought against him. However, his story (which is what the well-intentioned commenter was talking about) includes not only the false allegations, but his trial, his conviction, his imprisonment, the admission of the lying accuser, the overturning of Banks’ conviction, his resumption of his football dream, and his work with the California Innocence Project. That’s ALL his story. He’s 30 years old now. This isn’t the story of a boy. It’s the story of a man.
Clearly, I can’t tell you what to do or say. Clearly, I don’t speak for every black man in America and there are likely those who feel as if it’s no big deal. So, take it as advice, or leave it. Do with it as you will and decide if your right to call a grown man a “boy” is worth the risk of alienating and offending a sizeable portion of our nation’s population.