I don’t have a “best” compliment that comes to mind, but the prompt did bring to mind what might be the the worst “well meaning” compliment someone ever gave me. So I’ll go with that.
“You sound black when you sing”.
To be clear, I’m a fair Anglo Saxon. I can get a halfway decent tan if I really work at it, but I can also burn quite easily. I’m white.
I’ve done a fair amount of cultural study and will not pretend I know what it’s like to be a black man. I’ve never been followed by a police officer without cause, had the police called on me for merely waking into or being near a public facility, been treated unfairly and called racist profanities for simply existing, or a whole host of other things that have happened to my friends and people I love merely because they happen to have more melanin in their skin than me.
There was a time when my foster daughters and I were followed around a grocery store by “security personnel” for no apparent reason. I gave the stink eye to the person following us, and he slunk off. I’ve also yelled at a police officer, after he pulled me over for breaking the law, because I didn’t like the way he was talking to me. In fact, that’s happened twice – in my younger years. No way I would do that now! It is clear to me now that even being able to have the security guard stop following me with nothing but a harsh look, and certainly being able to yell at officers of the law and not escalate the situation or wind up dead is entirely my white privilege.
Back to the “compliment”. I must’ve stared at the guy who said it as though he had two heads. Could be really be so oblivious to his own racist mindset? He stammered and doubled down…said something about having a lot of “soul” in my sound. He also mentioned something about my tattoos being cool. To which I replied:
Stop! Just stop.
Based on his mannerisms and body language (and giving me a big slap on the back), I had reason to believe he intended to be complimentary, but from the words he chose I received zero insight as to what he actually thought about how I sounded, while providing me a bay window-sized view into his way of thinking and categorizing people. I mean, he never said he actually liked my singing, or anything about the timbre of my voice, the way the lyrics moved him, or whether I even stayed on pitch.
This moment did provide me instruction to be considerate when endeavoring to encourage or compliment someone. Specifically, to stay away from social constructs – especially when those constructs have been used for the systematic mistreatment and harm of others.
What about you? Have you encountered a seemingly well-meaning person who was actually demonstrating their bias by their chosen (possibly thoughtless) words? How did you respond?