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Saturday, February 26, 2011

What are you looking at? A Commentary on Eye Contact in the Black Community

In most western cultures, eye contact is a social cue that a person is confident and sincere. For many in America someone looking them in the eye is often a sign that a person is honest and telling the truth. However many African-Americans in the inner-city don’t see this social cue the same way as the rest of the world.

African-Americans avoiding eye contact has a history that goes back to slavery. It was socially unacceptable for a slave to make eye contact with a white man in the Antebellum South. Many whites back then felt if a Negro “eyeballed him” it was a sign that they thought they were equal to a white man and had no respect for him. In Jim Crow America, making eye contact was a social crime that could lead to a black person being lynched. And during the Civil Rights period and afterward, a black person could be arrested just for looking a police officer in the eyes.

Today African-Americans still regard making eye contact with a negative connotation even when interacting with each other. On the streets in inner city neighborhoods making eye contact is often seen as a sign of aggression and hostility. Any eye contact with a stranger in the ghetto can easily turn into an argument, escalate into a fight and lead up to murder. So many African-Americans, out of fear for their saftety, keep their eyes down and look away when they communicate with other brothers and sisters in the neighborhood.

Some may see this behavior as a sign of deferment. But it’s a social skill many brothers and sisters must practice to survive in a predatory environment controlled by gangs, drug dealers, junkies, the mentally ill, and hardcore criminals who can become violent at any provocation.

Unfortunately when African-Americans, especially black males from the inner-city practice the social behaviors they’ve learned out of safety and survival in the in the White community those social cues are often misinterpreted. Many Whites who don’t understand the social culture of the inner-city often believe that a black person is being insincere or lying when they look away when this isn’t the case.

These misunderstandings about nonverbal social cues have prevented African-Americans from getting jobs or keeping jobs, networking effectively in school, or socializing outside of the black community. Moreover it has prevented brothers and sisters from succeeding in the world of work. While social cues like eye contact and smiling are considered normal in White society, they can get someone killed in the inner-city.

So the next time An African-American person isn’t making eye contact or smiling, please don’t take it personal. Many Blacks were raised to communicate with a different set of social cues and do not mean to offend. In the inner-city actions often speak louder than words about truth, honesty, and trust, and eyes don’t necessarily tell the whole story about a person.


  1. What an absolutely necessary and useful comment on today's AA behavior. It sure set me to thinking. I've wondered about this for a long time, but neveer had it spelled out so clearly. It seems that with the advent of gang takeover of many AA communities, one form of slavery has been exchanged for another. I'm sure this is with the full approval of bigoted whites who still control more than we like to acknnowledge.

    Shawn, I hope on some later blog you'll write about the phenomenon of what I call "binding." Look them in the eye at your peril, but also if they feel you're "high hatting" them or "being too white," you're also placing yourself in jeopardy. Sad, but it's out there.

  2. Shawn, this is a fantastic you wrote about this. I knew about the behavior in historical content, but had no idea about the modern day repercussions. I don't feel that others do either. What an enlightening article this is! I would not have ever made this connection. And I am sure that people everywhere do misinterpret that body language and mix up the signals all the time! It is important information like this that people NEED to know about. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this insightful information. Today I had to have a hard discussion with a youth. She is a young AA mother living in our shelter. I have not had much interaction with her yet, but her avoidance of eye contact is very pronounced. She completely turns her head away when talking. Other AA youth I have worked with have turned their gaze away, and I never understood why. But after working with this youth today, I wanted to try to understand it more.

  4. Great article. I will share this with my class.

  5. "Police arrest suspect, 20, accused of stabbing to death a Brooklyn playwright in front of his wife after victim made eye contact with group of youths"