“Ain’t nobody Actin’ White…Or are We?

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Once again we are having a “spat” (it’s not worthy of the word “debate”) about whether some Black people are charging others of “acting White” because of their pursuit of academic excellence and their ability to speak “American Edited English” (I am careful not to call it Standard English since it is not the “standard” in many English speaking countries). Although this notion surfaced again because of something President Obama said, its more recent scholarly reiteration comes from a 1986 journal article authored by Fordham and Ogbu. In their article the authors argue that some Black students are teased and chided for their academic excellence because their peers accuse them of “acting White.”

Other scholars (Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005) conducted a mixed methods study that demonstrated that many academically successful Black students are encouraged and admired by their peers without being accused of “acting White.” Peter Murrell argued that the “acting White” phenomenon may be a developmental stage, especially when Black students are in desegregated schools where they are the minority. Later, Murrell argues, many of those students who enter colleges or universities with established Black Student Unions or similar affiliation groups identify strongly with Black culture and aesthetics. Even more interesting, Ferguson conducted a study of 35,000 students–Black, White, Latin@, and Asian-American and found that ALL students reported that their peers tease each other for being highly school-focused and call it “Acting White” and Latin@ and Asian-American students reported this behavior at a higher rate than Black students!

Now, we have a rekindling of President Obama’s suggestion that Black students are discouraged in their academic pursuits because their friends call high aspirations “Acting White.” Unfortunately, the President is either forgetting or unaware of both the contemporary and historical context in which this epithet is used. In a contemporary context, Americans of all races and ethnicities have always teased and ridiculed what they term as “nerds” or “geeks.” This is not exclusive to the African American community. In the 90s sit-com, “Family Matters” Jaleel White plays the character, “Steve Urkel” who is the butt of jokes because of his “nerdiness.” No one wants to be like Steve. Laura, the love of his life falls in love with his alter ego, Stephon–not geeky Steve! The entire premise of the current popular sit-com, “The Big Bang Theory” is that the four scientists are brilliant but social and culturally awkward. They are not the role models that most teenagers seek to emulate.

Historically, “acting White” was a notion imposed on enslaved (and later newly emancipated) African Americans. For instance, learning to read was punishable by death. It was illegal for Whites to teach enslaved African Americans to read. To be able to read was seen as “acting White.” Speaking, using American Edited English was also seen as “acting White.” For those who saw the film, “12 Years a Slave,” you will recall how Solomon Northrup was required to modify his Northern, “educated” linguistic register to avoid further persecution from the slave master. The complexity of how Black people are required to “act” in certain situations is not merely about whether one is “acting White” or not.

Our survival is dependent on cultivating and maintaining cultural and linguistic flexibility. Young Black folks who say, “I’ma make it do what it do” are drawing on the same linguistic repertoire as grandmamas who sit in church on Sunday singing, “I don’t feel no ways tired!” The syntax and structure of Black English Vernacular (BEV) melds African linguistic forms with modern vocabulary and youth culture slang (see for example, work by Geneva Smitherman and H. Samy Alim).

The piece of the so-called “acting White” phenomenon that troubles me is the way SOME people who have greater access to and fluency in dominant culture forms denigrate Black cultural expressions. This, to me, is an example of internalized racism and self-hatred reflected in rejection of our natural beauty (e.g. hair texture, skin complexion, body types, facial features, etc.) and cultural expressions such as our music, our fashion sense, and yes, our language.

Our obligation as adults is to help our children learn dominant cultural forms WITHOUT losing or hating our rich heritage. It is not an either-or proposition; this is a true example of “both-and.” We must learn to be bi-cultural  (or even, multicultural) to thrive in a global environment.  We also have to acknowledge the ways that most “successful” (academically, financially, politically, etc.) Black people have had to adapt to White norms while trying to hold on to our blackness!

President Obama’s “swag” and coolness is a part of his appeal in the Black community–it reflects his blackness. The fact that he gets up each morning and goes to an office in the same place he lives wearing a suit and tie reflects his conforming to dominant cultural norms. He celebrates his own bi-cultural heritage but fails to see the way many young people are fighting to hold on to a sense of self and authenticity.

“Acting White?” Of course we sometimes do. I have seen even the hardest thug represent himself in a courtroom or other tough situation using the most dominant form he could muster if it meant avoiding a penalty. We have to remain culturally flexible to maintain our livelihood and our flavor! What do you think?

Stay Smart & Black!

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4 thoughts on ““Ain’t nobody Actin’ White…Or are We?

  1. Interesting post…believe it or not, there are some young women (20somethings) who have started a “Black girl nerds” podcast. They actually had a segment in which both men and women debated the use of the word “blerd”, as in “Black nerd”, which apparently some of the younger generation seems to be embracing with pride. These were college-educated Blacks who admitted freely to enjoying science fiction, even chess (!), etc. I had to smile as I listened, because I am hopeful that this reflects a changing mentality and greater latitude in terms of how we’re defining ourselves. “Acting White” should be an anachronistic term, particularly if it’s a euphemism for being articulate or successful. I guess that’s one of the reasons I like the name of your blog so much! 🙂

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  2. “Our obligation as adults is to help our children learn dominant cultural forms WITHOUT losing or hating our rich heritage. It is not an either-or proposition; this is a true example of “both-and.” We must learn to be bi-cultural (or even, multicultural) to thrive in a global environment.” Loved this part!
    I have also found that it helps me to think about the contributions of all the cultures that we have in the US and the world instead of looking for negative aspects only. We have a lot to be thankful for, and I agree with you, using an either/or mentality gets us nowhere in learning how to accept others for who they are–heritage and all. We have such a wide variety of cultures here in the US and in the world, cultures that have mixed and recreated new cultures. Multicultural seems to be the best way to understand ourselves and others.
    Great post! Thank you for sharing.

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  3. I just loved everything about this post! It is so relevant to today’s moment. What I am most thinking about is the anachronism between bell hooks’ calling for the end of White Supremacy (in her appearance at St. Norbert College) and the epithet of “Acting White” that is used to indicate a kind of assimilation … but referring to the skills of assimilation that allow many to navigate the dominant culture … which is White Supremacist in the extreme. We have crossed over into a political climate so fractious that navigating its treacherous waters becomes more and more difficult. There is Sarah Palin acting White and calling for President Obama to be sued??? There is Michelle Bachmann acting White and misquoting the Bible, misinterpreting science, etc. in her own misguided way … nothing has changed since her failed presidential campaign in that regard. Then recently there is bell hooks quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and wondering what MLK would say about this moment in time. So much to think about … (going outside in the heat to plant Russian sage now to give my head a break and get my hands dirty in the soil)

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  4. Truly refreshing read. Thank you Dr GLB! SO many points to speak on; I’ll choose two.
    1) World-wide, the flavor, style, expression, and thought, creativity, spirituality and beauty that Blacks bring to the world stage are picked through, used, and profited from. I remember in the 70’s when you started seeing white NBA players give each other high-fives after making a good shot, that was my first ah-ha moment. Soon, everybody was doing it – in TV commercials, shows, movies, and all print media. Somehow, the same larger society which had previously looked down their noses at this gesture of celebration, was able to see its value and use it themselves. Everywhere you looked, things that were considered “Black” were making it into the mainstream. Bo Derek’s braids is another great example. JLo’s butt is another. I could go on… but the point?
    2) Language and its use has always been the ultimate litmus test for who was intellectually superior or inferior. I contend that Ebonics is a language, used in the homes of many Black people in America, perhaps qualifying “English as a second language” treatment for some of our kids. If Ebonics was respected like Japanese, Korean or Spanish, perhaps children would do better in school at the elementary level? When a child is told that the very same language that works with “momanem” is “bad” or “stupid” or in some way illiterate, you cause a child to question their own abilities at the core level. This almost cellular level criticism catches a child defenseless – and can erode their confidence. Instead of chastising a child for having his/her own cultural language – one that is successful at home – why not respect where they are and teach the differences as thought they are bi-lingual? Language is such a politicized cultural barrier, and it should not be. I love the sound, rhythms, and meaning of every expression. “Talking white”, while pejorative to Blacks, is a label we understand from a historical context and, like other minorities, Blacks must do sometimes to assimilate. However, let’s do so while safeguarding and learning to take pride in what is ours to protect and pass on. Whether you choose to use it or not, it should not be considered something “less than”.
    -WTP3

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