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Not A Compliment: 'Sometimes I Forget You're Black'

Chris Matthews ruffled more than a few feathers after with his remarks after President Obama's recent State of the Union address. Carlos Osorio/AP hide caption

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Carlos Osorio/AP

Chris Matthews ruffled more than a few feathers after with his remarks after President Obama's recent State of the Union address.

Carlos Osorio/AP

Many women like me have been guilty of this: You've got that platonic guy friend, the one who helps you move furniture, who is always willing to take you to the airport, even for the Red Eye. He comes along when you go to the car dealership, just to make sure the salesmen don't try to get over on you. And he does all these things without ever making a pass at you. At one point, just to let him know how much you appreciate it, you pay him what you think is the ultimate compliment.

Sometimes I forget you're a man.

But instead of accepting your "praise" graciously, he looks stricken. Maybe — at best — he mumbles, "um...thanks?"

That's because, he probably thinks you just called him a weakling, a chump, a eunuch...and, as you tell him this, he's probably hearing his guy friends' taunts that that's EXACTLY what you think of him.

And so, keeping that in mind, I want MSNBC's Chris Matthews — and all other well meaning white people out there — to know: you should never tell an African-American person that sometimes he's so smart, so focused, so well-spoken, that sometimes, you forget he's black. Matthews said something to this effect after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, and has been trying to walk that unfortunate comment back ever since.

Still, he's been lavishly mocked and laughed at across the blogosphere, on television, and today in Tell Me More's Barbershop.

I have to say that President Obama seems to take this kind of thing better than most black people I know. But then again, he started cultivating that grace early, often, and VERY close to home. In his famous speech on race in April of 2008, he eluded to the fear of black men his own grandmother sometimes expressed, and how he knew that didn't diminish her love or devotion to him.

But you know what? Despite President Obama's family story, and what we've all seen in movies like The Blind Side, or classic TV sitcoms like "Webster," most black people don't have an enduring memory of an imperfect but nurturing white caretaker to soften the reaction to that kind of comment. More likely, they'll be reminded of a series of similar verbal slights dating back to elementary school, and it will provoke responses from bemused or irritated, to angry and indignant.

Having said that, it's not the end of the world. Everybody tells lies, but not everyone is a liar. And, even so, not every liar is Bernie Madoff or —yes, I'm calling him out again — John Edwards.

Likewise, just about everyone I know — including me — has said something that qualifies as racist. But that doesn't mean we're all racists. And, having said that, we've got to acknowledge that not every racist is David Duke.

So I don't think Chris Matthews deserves to be taken out and flogged. After he takes the late-night jokester drubbing that he has coming, Matthews — and the rest of us — should be allowed to move on.