“Ain’t nobody Actin’ White…Or are We?


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!