Sometime in the 90s, possibly first on the Martin show, the phrase “Oh no you didn’t!” was popularized in black culture along with “Talk to the the hand” and other sassy phrases. Because early adopters were primarily black, the phrase became a “black thing”; off limits for white folks.
Like all cool things that were originated by black folks, white folks can’t wait to use them and make them uncool; or worse, cross an invisible line into mild racism or cultural appropriation. It’s like when a new drug comes on the market and you have to wait ten years for the patent to run out so you can start buying the generic. Such is the case with cool things black people say.
Enter uncool white guy, David Wilson-Burns. In the early 2000s, when we were on the cusp of white people being able to use the phrase, “Oh no you didn’t! (di-int)” but not quite (except for maybe Betty White, she can get away with anything), I was in a meeting to plan a Christmas musical program for my division of the FAA. Just think about that for a moment. We planned to sing Christmas carols and a couple of emotional songs about Jesus in a federal agency, on federal property, during Christmas, on federal time. I don’t know how long this had been going on, but I don’t miss an opportunity to sing in public, so I overlooked my concerns about separation of church and state. I don’t think they do it anymore, and I don’t think it’s because of religion.
At the meeting were a short white gal with intense control issues, a tone-deaf white gal who consistently sang in the wrong key to karaoke tracks and who insisted on singing the hardest songs and as many songs as possible in the program and who eventually caused the tradition to implode, me a classical singer trying to learn how to sing pop music, and a black guy with an amazing tenor voice who could sing anything. I’d sung with him before and we were on very friendly terms. He loved my voice, and I loved his voice; a mutual respect.
I had been assigned the secret role on the committee to make sure the tone-deaf woman was following the “one solo/one ensemble” rule and that she was singing songs that were easier to sing in tune and to coach her when necessary because people were getting up and leaving when she sang because of how painful it was. I felt a little bad about it, but I knew the show would be problematic if I didn’t set these kinds of parameters. It was actually a nice voice, but even a nice voice sounds terrible 3 or 4 steps off. There’s the person who can’t sing well who knows it, but just wants to give it a go, and then there’s the person who can’t sing well, blindly insists that she’s the next Mariah Carey, and wants to dominate any program she’s in. I can tolerate the former. I don’t believe you have to be a great singer to sing in programs and churches. I like everyone to have a chance to share their music. But this gal was the latter. Where is Simon Cowell when you need him?
At some point in the meeting, someone talked about someone else doing or saying something that offended the sensibilities of one of the white girls at the table. I do not remember who or what, but it was the perfect time to say “Oh know she di-in’t” and in the absence of a sassy black woman and before I took time to consider what I was doing, I said it. I may have even nailed it. The white ladies laughed, but the black guy didn’t. Instead, he raised his eyebrows at me across the conference room table and said, “Did you just do something?”
I knew I had just done something, but I played innocent. I shook my head and said, “Nnnnnope.”
To which he replied, nodding slightly and speaking with calm finality, “You just did something.”
And I knew the time had not yet come for me to use that phrase, even though I had watched the same Martin episode years before. But that’s just the way it is. I don’t know exactly why it has to be that way, but I suspect it’s because in the history of America, white folks have taken all of the good stuff, including credit for stuff that black folks came up with first. Elvis is a prime example. He did not invent Rock and Roll, and yet he gets so much credit for it. He was just a white early adopter with a mediocre voice, awesome hair, and a few weird dance moves that made 14-year-old girls weep hysterically.
I tell my “Oh no she didn’t” story once and awhile. It gets a laugh. It was a lesson learned, and it was funny. The guy was likely not offended by my gaffe. He never said another word about it and we remained friends. He just wanted to hold my feet over the coals a little bit. His prerogative, I suppose.
At this point in my life, I don’t pretend to be cool, or appropriate coolness from anybody. I am who I am, and in some ways that’s kind of funny. I’m the kind of guy who could easily be a a super white neighbor character in an episode of Martin who says “Youuuu betcha.”