OPINION: Stop telling black people that they ‘act white’


Genevieve Guenther

Darius Melton, Opinion Editor

As we’re currently living in a time where most of the western world is set on preaching tolerance, be it tolerance of race, gender and sex, sexual orientation, etc., it’s interesting to see that not much of a fuss has been made about the common practice of determining whether or not someone is “black enough.”

This can pop up out for many reasons. Sometimes it’s jokingly “taking someone’s black card” because they’ve never watched the movie “Friday” starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker. Other times, it feels a bit ruder: I’ve run into people online who hope for another black president not because they like a particular presidential candidate who happens to be black, but because Obama was “only” half black.

The most common tactic that I’ve personally seen used to devalue someone’s blackness is proclaiming that they are “acting white” or “talking white.” Statements like these are often joked about like the aforementioned “black card” business, and while I’m not here to draw the comedy-line for others, what I do want to do is examine what makes these kinds of phrases harmful – even if accidentally – to both races involved.

It’s important to note early on that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being black or being white. Race doesn’t dictate behavior, and you can’t tell the color of someone’s character just by examining the color of their skin. I like to believe that most people understand this concept and that the “acting white” sentiment isn’t rooted in malicious intent, but that being said, it still doesn’t come off great the more you think about what’s being implied.

For starters, the rules for what exactly constitutes as “acting black” and “acting white” are hazy, with a lot of different cultural factors involved. There’s what the person wears, what music they listen to, the comedians they like – and possibly the most important, the way a person speaks.

Jaidyn Sharp, a third-year biology major here at UNC Wilmington, spoke at length about her disdain for the “talking white” debate.

“I think that probably one of the first instances where I realized that I was black was when I was in middle school and, you know, just talking to people, they’d be like, ‘Why do you talk so white?'” Sharp said. “I never let it change the way I spoke, but as I got older, I recognize it now.”

Sharp went on to explain that she feels the whole idea of “talking black” puts in people’s minds that black people are supposed to sound ignorant. Why does having formal English make you “one of the good ones?” It’s a slap to the face of all educated black people when one of the deciding factors of talking like them is something like bad grammar.

On the other side of the insult, the tone most often used alongside the “acting white” statement is one that seems to indicate that being white is bad in of itself. This is one of those racial issues that hits within the group as well as from the outside-in, as the statement demeans the singular black person and vilifies all white people in one move.

There’s a great video by the YouTube channel “Toonrific Tariq” that discusses black representation in cartoons, and there is a point around the 7:45 mark where he touches on the idea maintained by old school black comics such as the “Kings of Comedy” that all black dudes act one way and all white dudes act another way. Tariq argues in the video that this type of joke, though beloved by the African American community back in the 1980s and ’90s, actively pushes against the idea that black people are more than their skin tone.

On a personal note, I obviously get this now – even the six people in my house are completely different from one another – but I wish I’d gotten it as a child, as I think the image of what a black person is “supposed” to be was shaped by guys like Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey and it’s partially stuck with me still. I’ve entered a point in my life where I’m always excited to see another black person because I see myself in them, but I also don’t often find myself seeking an actual conversation because something inside me is still pretty sure I’m just going to end up letting them down.

I don’t really stick to one lane these days, instead mixing things up so that I can rock out to both N.W.A. and Queen, laugh at both Dave Chappelle and John Mulaney, and call my friends both “bruh” and “my dude,” but if there’s another brother out there who’s only into the second choices, more power to him.

It’s also great if you’re super into your African heritage and choose to celebrate Kwanzaa, or super into your Irish heritage and get all greened-up on St. Patrick’s Day, or super into your Mexican heritage and party for Cinco de Mayo, or super into your Chinese heritage and get into Lunar New Years.

It’s awesome to be able to celebrate your own culture, but it’s not okay to judge others because their interests fall more in line with those of another culture.