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What Exactly Does It Mean To Act White?

When I was younger, one or two ignorant black people in my school, would accuse me of acting like a white person. I didn’t get it then, and I sure don’t get it now.

It all seemed to stem from the fact that I wanted to learn, and I had no time for shiftless idiots, who’s favourite pastimes included playing truant from school. There was no way that was ever gonna happen, that’s just not the way I was raised.

My mother was a nurse, who was on her way to becoming a doctor when she had me, and my father was a policeman who became became a lawyer, then started his own business in lieu of practicing law. Being an abject failure in school, and hanging out with kids past eight o’clock at night were not part of their plans for me. Speaking like an uneducated numpty was also not part of their plans for me, however, because I used proper words when I spoke, and because smoking weed when I was at high school, held no attractions for me, I was labelled a ‘square’. Seriously, moi, square! Can you Adam and Eve it??

I can’t recall the first time I was accused of acting white, but every time that accusation has been levelled at me since, it never fails to annoy the shit out of me. Mostly because to me, it seems that because I don’t speak the way some black people expect other black people to speak, I’m instantly labelled a white-wannabe.

Using ebonics or patois isn’t my thing, it never has been. If I tried either, I’d sound faker than Pamela Anderson’s tits. That’s just not who I am.

The irony is, I understand, and have more of an interest in black history, than 99% of the people who have accused me of acting white. I know more about the world, period, than 99% of those people. Quite frankly, I’m more intelligent than 99% of those people.

I want to know why some black people believe that unless you act a certain way, you’re selling out and white-washing your blackness? Who says that the ability to articulate one’s thoughts is a white-only feat? Since when is the hunger for education and the need to always strive for better, a trait that only white people are allowed to have? Seriously, what the hell?

Why have I brought up this subject, I hear you ask? Well, I was on Youtube last night, watching a Kerry Washington interview, (Love her so much) and some of the comments – mostly from (American) black men it seemed to me (There seems to be a trend here), were just so unbelievably racist. She was accused of selling out because she speaks eloquently. Yes, her diction seemed to be a problem with some folks, who accused her of faking the way she spoke in order to fit in with whites. How ridiculous are some people?

As far as I’m concerned, that right there is the kind of attitude that makes life difficult for blacks who understand that knowledge is power, and that the ability to interact with a divergent group of people on different levels is a good thing.

Rant over.

10 Comments »

  • Black men are pissed at Kerry Washington because she’s sthupping a white dude on national television. I believe she was engaged to white guy at some point too, but I don’t follow the tabs like I used to. Any attractive black woman is supposed to be their exclusive territory, even cinematically.

    I too have been accused of “acting white”. I think it’s an issue of class. There’s this mindset out there that there are no class distinctions amongst black people. Or at least that there shouldn’t be. I’ve always been surprised by this. No one is surprised that upper class whites don’t sound and act like the cast of Honey Boo Boo, but apparently all blacks are supposed to be “straight out of Compton.” As always I call bullshit. I have distinctly working class roots, but my parents tolerated no foolishness period, especially as it pertained to school and grades. I was called ugly names and bullied all through school, but I realize now that it was a class issue, though for the longest time I thought it was a black thing and wondered why I was so different.

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  • Lori
    September 30
    3:15 pm

    Great poat, Karen. We see it every day over here, too. Especially since Pres Obama has been in office. “He’s not black enough”. “He’s trying to deny his black heritage.” And more.

    Just because someone is articulate , educated and intelligent? I have never understood this.

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  • katieM
    September 30
    7:33 pm

    I heard this from so many of my own relatives while I was growing up. It was so upsetting. I used to think it was just classism – poor relatives versus middle class relatives – but it’s more than that. There seems to be some sort of belief that all black people are the same and any who aspire to achieve successes in life or better themselves are “acting white.” Speaking proper English, dressing in appropriately fitting clothing, enjoying any music other than hip hop, rap, or gospel, having a job, having a husband who treats you right – all of that is akin to putting on airs and acting white. It is those beliefs, our own beliefs about ourselves, that hold black people back.

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  • e_bookpushers
    October 1
    3:32 am

    All I can say is “what you said!” I have tried explaining this to other people about the insularism that can be seen in large mixed groups of people. Some intermingle everywhere some separate themselves in packs and look askance at those who refuse to remain separate. And people wonder why they can’t get ahead in life.

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  • I’m not black, and I used to get crap like that when I was growing up anyway, because I had educated diction, less of an accent, and a passion for equality smack dab in the middle of Honey Boo Boo land. I’m starting to see glimmers of my kids having to deal with this because I have always spoken to them like they have brains instead of babytalking. Now they too converse with what I consider a standard vocabulary. I don’t know why people have so much trouble accepting that not everyone is alike :(.

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  • It’s not just blacks–I get similar reactions from Latinos.

    Apparently, trying to speak properly means taking on airs, stepping above one’s station–trying to be ‘white’

    Arrant stupidity, if you ask me.

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  • Dawn Brookes
    October 2
    12:47 pm

    I speak properly, and I wonder if that’s something to do with the fact that when we were living in Jamaica, my sister and I were educated at private school. When we came to England at 9 and 11, that type of education was all out of the window, but for some reason we both continued to be well-spoken (undoubtedly our parents’ influence). Both of my brothers who were considerably younger do speak quite well, but can drop some patois with the best of them.

    Like you, Karen, I feel completely ridiculous if I try and speak patois. Although, saying that, when I’m with my family my accent turns more Jamaican.

    I’ve never had this accusation levelled at me, although I’ve been asked if I call myself black or white (pasty skin, you see).

    I hate reading books or watching films where all the dialogue is “black”. Just don’t relate. The Cosby Show portrayed a black family who spoke well. There was nothing (as far as I know) about them not being black enough.

    Rambling on as usual – any of this make sense?

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  • Oh yeah Cosby got a lot of blowback for not being authentic. I never watched, family sit coms aren’t my thing, but I remember thinking how ridiculous that was.

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  • Tina
    October 9
    5:47 pm

    In my opinion this comes from two places:

    1) socio-economic
    2) fear of loss of cultural identity.

    When someone tries to diminish you for speaking proper english or ‘acting white’ it is because they are usually from a socio-economic background that has not allowed them any real-world exposure outside of their own socio-geographic space.

    Anyone at all who has had the opportunity to interact with the larger society in a formalized manner, via a professional working relationship or through higher education would never see this as a failing. They would understand that proper usage is simply something that must be done to succeed.

    And as someone pointed out above, this is not confined to the black community. There are cultural aspects as well. Language is a huge cultural signifier. In 2010, The US gov’t changed it’s classification of who can be identified as Latino/Hispanic based not of geography (as it had been informally done in the past) but rather by linguistic signifier. There is the fear that assimilating into the larger culture not only through intermarriage but also by adopting language would also mean a loss of identity.

    The fact of he matter is, you need to consider the source. When someone makes that accusation it is coming from a place of profound ignorance.

    On a somewhat related note: can we please, please, please, please retire the term ‘ebonics’? I find that term profoundly disturbing because it has a ton of negative baggage. Not a single linguistic nor anthropological association has accepted it a true descriptive linguistic categorization. Since it came in vogue in the mid-90s, it has been adopted as a term that separatists use to shore up their beliefs that blacks are fundamentally different from whites.

    Even worse I believe that the same blacks who would jeer at you for ‘acting white’ would themselves latch onto it as an their own excuse for not needing to learn proper english. It gives them the belief that there is an actual, accepted separate language that is sanctioned for usage by blacks.

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  • Rebecca
    April 27
    8:21 pm

    Oh glory be to God! Thankful for this amazing article 🙂

    I can safely safe that I completely agree with everything you have said.
    More than anyone I know, I am interested in learning about my black community, and do anything I can to give to my community – I am back in my home country of Ghana partaking in a project, and have a career aim to work within my community.
    As a result, I am insulted for acting white ? How sad..this narrow mind set is the reason why black people do not progress as they should.
    I have been harassed all day long all the time for being a dark skinned women which is sociable, good looking, interesting, loving God! Ah!
    Leave me alone and stop being so ridiculous! I will say, this empowers me even more to make a difference in the black community, because mindset is holding us back big time. Happiness, education, living life to the full and being optimistic is for white people?
    This foolishness has to stop.

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