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When It Comes To Terms Like 'Colored People's Time,' Context Matters

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tries his hand at some racial humor at the 94th annual Inner Circle Dinner in New York.
David Handschuh
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tries his hand at some racial humor at the 94th annual Inner Circle Dinner in New York.

One would think we wouldn't be needing to have this conversation right about now, but apparently we do.

As you've surely heard by now, this time the peg comes courtesy of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose appearance in a comedy skit during a black-tie dinner over the weekend culminated with a "surprise" onstage visit from Hillary Clinton and Hizzoner's use of the phrase "C.P. Time."

For people unfamiliar with it, that's Colored People's Time — usually abbreviated, in the black communities I've lived in, to C.P.T. — and it means clock-challenged. It's often used by colored peoples to describe habitually tardiness. "Dinner's at 7, but you know they run on C.P.T., so I told them it was 5:30, so they actually get there by 7."

Black people use the expression all the time. And people of other ethnicities have told me they have similar expressions — Latinos, Italians, Slavs — but the point is that when they use the term, they're talking about themselves. Even though de Blasio has an African-American wife, and they have two children who look African-American, he is not. And so the use of "C.P. Time" by a P who is not C is ... problematic.

In de Blasio's joke, the excuse for his taking so long to endorse Hillary Clinton was him running on "C.P. Time," except in this case, he explained, it meant "cautious politician time." It didn't take long for the evening's assessment to come roaring in. The words "cringe" and "cringeworthy" started popping up on social media immediately after. The Daily News put Hillz and her "second-favorite Bill" on its cover the next day with a banner hed blaring SKIT FOR BRAINS.

On CNN, the mayor — who, it must be said, has a reputation for tardiness — calmly defended himself. He explained the "C.P. Time" reference was part of a scripted show and had always been planned as a joke, and that Clinton and Leslie Odom Jr., the Hamilton star who was also onstage for the skit, "thought it was a joke on a different convention." It was, he reiterated, a joke about cautious politicians. "I think people are missing the point here."

Uh, no, sir. The point is this: Even though you're dearly loved by and even related to black people, you aren't black. You are NBA — Negro By Association — and that gives you props for knowing the culture and lots of little intracultural folkways. But it doesn't give you a get-out-of-jail card for using phrases like C.P. Time. Especially in mixed company, in public.

Of course, white people make that mistake with the N-word all the time. Justin Bieber. Madonna. Charlie Sheen. Gwyneth Paltrow, who's famously pals with Jay-Z and Kanye, and ran into Jay and 'Ye when they were all in France one year, and attended one of their concerts there. She tweeted she was hanging out with "n****s in Paris, for real." She later claimed she was quoting one of their songs — and there is one. But still, Gwynnie — nah. (Russell Simmons defended her, though.)

This argument has been going on for ages, and every six months or so, it pops up again. Like when six Arizona high school girls banded together on Picture Day to take a group shot in black T-shirts, each with a big letter on her shirt that spelled ... guess ... when you put them all together. (The girl wearing the "R" later apologized. And a black pastor urged the public to forgive.)

To be sure, C.P. Time is nowhere near as toxic as the N-word, but similar rules apply: You don't use it if you aren't a person of color — at least, you don't in public. Maybe they say C.P.T. in the de Blasio house all the time, and it's a family joke. If it's a gentle chastisement that black de Blasios are amused by and everybody's on the same page, I'm not mad at 'em.

But in a public event, where you don't even know everyone, let alone love them? Not a smart idea, and the reception de Blasio's joke got makes that clear. Makes you wonder if, in the writer's huddle, no one else of color was in the room where that joke happened. Or maybe they were supposed to be, and they were running late.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.