"Not Black Enough", 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Acting White, Authentic Blackness, Authenticity, Denial, Internalized Racism, Mother-Son Relationship, My Brother's Keeper Initiative, Nia-Malika Henderson, President Barack Obama, Racial Denial, Racial Stereotypes, Racism, Structural Racism, Whiteness
Two years ago, a conservative woman engaged me in what became an increasingly vitriolic conversation on “acting White,” blind loyalty and political ideology. The below only covers (for the most part) the “acting White” part of the conversation.
Apologies for commenting here but the Star Trek one [my blog post Why Ferengi Are Jewish & The Maquis Are Latino from 2011] had comments closed. In light of your thoughts on positive or negative stereotypes, how do you feel about the cultural phenomena of “acting white” term in Black community? (in case it needs explaining, that’s a derogatory term – by Black community – for a minority child who studies hard. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acting_white)
To which I responded:
Given how my life has evolved over the past four decades, I think I understand what “acting White” means. But the fact is, African Americans have a diversity of opinions on this issue. There are some Blacks, though, who believe in the idea of an authentic Blackness, which I’ve written about as an educator, historian and from a personal perspective over the years. Part of this is generational, and part of this is socioeconomic in nature. And this issue of authenticity has been around since the days of slavery, so it’s not new. What’s new is the increasing push-back from Blacks of various backgrounds about this issue of “acting White.” Bottom line: those who use this phrase tend to be anti-intellectual, distrustful of higher education and as bigoted as any other group in American society toward “others.”
But my visitor to my blog wasn’t done, not by a long shot:
Sorry, Wasn’t too clear in my question. Do you feel that the fact of how widespread it is in the culture (both the use and the lack of disapproval) has any *material* consequences to the socioeconomic outcomes for Blacks as a group in the 1990-2020 period? It’s clear that you disapprove of it, but do you feel it is a problem that **must** be fixed for Blacks to succeed (beyond mere “bigotry is bad” angle)?
In response, I broke down the assumptions embedded in the previous comment:
Your assumption here is troubling, as if 40 million African Americans all think alike on this topic. Sure, there’s a slice of Blacks who have a litmus test for “authentic” Blackness, and for them, those who can’t meet this test are considered “acting White.” But no, there’s no agreed upon definition for either in African America. Your premise supposes the sociological or psychological effect of this is a lower socioeconomic status for African Americans. Keep in mind that since the 1970s, more than 50 percent of Blacks have been middle or upper middle class, while the poverty rate for Blacks has varied between 25 and 33 percent over the past 40 years. Your question ignores other factors, including de-industrialization, expanding economic inequality, and structural racism as factors that have far more effect on social mobility than a cultural litmus test that a small slice of Blacks strictly adhere to.
There’s more, much more, and the comments section under About Me from the period August 30-September 3, 2012 has the rest. The assumption that I was protecting the race under a false sense of loyalty. The idea that Blacks who were otherwise equal in intelligence and from equally impoverished backgrounds were doing better than her because of affirmative action and other forms of alleged “reverse racism” (whatever this fiction is). My response was to treat her like one of my ideologically bull-headed student for whom facts and scholarly research matter about as much as ants inside an anthill.
President Barack Obama’s recent comments about the meaning and implications of “acting White” has made me think about this issue — again. The fact is, there may well be individuals who decide to not go to college or medical school, take certain jobs or listen to Pearl Jam because of their notions of “acting White” and “authentic Blackness.” I know there are — including a friend of mine who committed suicide sixteen years ago after deciding to not go to medical school over this whole issue. But the idea that large groups of Blacks in poverty or as practicing Afrocentrists are avoiding success and education because it may be too White for them? Absolute bullshit! Period. Anything to come up with a simple-minded excuse to cover up structural racism, residential segregation and poverty as the factors for lack of Black social mobility when compared to Whites.
“Acting White,” or at least, being “not Black enough,” comes out of the following (between my experience and thirty years of research):
1. The idea that “acting White” = not cool. That’s all. Not about intellect per se, but more about the constant expression of high intellect in casual situations, or at least, lacking the ability to switch up from high-brow to colloquial language. I’ve been in this situation many times, with neighborhood kids in Mount Vernon, New York, at MVHS, at the University of Pittsburgh and even in my own classroom.
2. “Acting White” = doing things that Blacks have only seen Whites do. In this case, beyond language, it could include forms of dress, having eclectic music tastes, or eating fried chicken with a fork and knife. Or, more seriously, taking a political position that others can easily perceive as being against the interests of African Americans. I can attest to the comments I’ve gotten for embracing “White” music as part of my overall repertoire over the years.
3. “Acting White” = not wanting to be around or like other Blacks. In my experience, this applies even more within African American families than it does to Black neighbors, classmates or friends. My Mom wanted me to go to college, but she also wasn’t comfortable with the idea that college would change the way I saw her and the rest of the world. She was especially not happy when I decided to go to graduate school, because it meant that I might no longer be able to relate to her and my brother.
I can honestly say that even with all this, I’ve never met anyone who deliberately practiced self-sabotage in their education or in any other area of their lives to avoid “acting White.” That this is a topic of conversation at all confirms that Americans love living in denial of all things connected to racial inequality. Especially the structural racism from which they draw a benefit — material and/or psychological — every single day. Calling “acting White” a theory is an insult to the scientific method and to all Blacks, including those who’ve used the term over the years.