Acting Black, Acting White

Overhearing people discussing race can be cringeworthy at times.

Frustration struck me when I overheard a  coworker giving someone a lesson on race yesterday. He stated that if a black person uses “proper” English as opposed to Ebonics, they are essentially “acting white” so you can call them “White-ish”, i.e. kind of White.  He went on to say that he knows white guys (he named Eminem as one) who act “more black” than some of the black guys he knows and it’s okay to call them “Black-ish.” I’ve experienced racial microaggressions before and have overheard countless racist comments as well but this was a co-worker so his comments were considerably more hurtful to me. After bringing my concerns to my supervisor who then reprimanded my coworker, my coworker gave me a halfhearted apology which I accepted although I know  he still isn’t aware of how hurtful and offensive his comments were. I would hesitate to call my coworker racist, instead I’d say he’s very ignorant, and ignorance can hurt as much as racism at times.

The issue behind this is of course stereotypes, oversimplified  or erroneous ideas that are used to define specific groups of people. People often say that not all stereotypes are negative, so what’s the big deal? Unfortunately stereotypes, both good and bad, can affect how we treat people. By utilizing stereotypes we don’t have to think on our own, we can just dig through the collection of stereotypes we’ve curated and suddenly we think we know all about somebody based on an attribute. I find using stereotypes to be a very lazy and clumsy approach but unfortunately one that many people use. Are you treating me based on what you’ve learned about me through our interactions, or based on what you THINK you know about me? I can usually tell.

Based on his definitions on “Blackness” and “Whiteness”, my co-worker perceives me as a black person who “acts white” because of the way that I talk. My coworker thought it was okay to make such comments to a young Korean girl new to Canada, one who had never interacted with non-Koreans before moving here. Here you’ve been given a prime opportunity to educate a newcomer to your country about Canadian culture and diversity, but instead decide to use stereotypes to illustrate your point. I am reminded of the fact that what we tell people who may not have been exposed to different cultures, like what we tell our children in their early years about race, is crucial in how they interact with the “Other.”

The strength to be oneself in a society that says you should be such and such a way because of your outward appearance is something we shouldn’t take lightly. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to be ourselves, individuals, and not be afraid of doing things that apparently members of our race do not do. I think we all, especially people of colour, should refuse to be restricted to a two-dimensional image. We should demand to see more realistic portrayals of ourselves in movies, we should surround ourselves with stories of people of colour going against the odds for inspiration. Many of us are fortunate enough to live in societies where we have so many options and so much exposure to diversity so why shouldn’t we take advantage of these? I will certainly do so.

Like I told my coworker, just because I, a black woman, don’t speak in Ebonics (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with speaking in Ebonics, just a little disclaimer here!) doesn’t mean I’m “White-ish.” I’m completely black regardless of what I wear, how I speak, what I eat and how I act. I’m black because of genetics and my African heritage. I appreciate the diversity in people and acknowledge that the way one is is often due to personality, the culture they are socialized in, their immediate environment, and who they interact with.



13 thoughts on “Acting Black, Acting White

  1. Etiquette advice for whites is to avoid broaching race issues in public conversation, period. There are ample editorial outlets besides the workplace. Harboring of stereotypes only becomes wrong in the absence of ability to conceal one’s true feelings, which after all don’t need to be displayed everywhere one goes. Some people do not know that, and should perhaps be forgiven as ignorant.

    1. Hello, thanks for the comment. I would definitely agree with the fact that broaching race issues need to be done in a careful way, considering time, place and so on. It’s definitely not easy to discuss race and I acknowledge that. However, I believe with all the diversity that surrounds us and all the resources that are available to us, there is little excuse for harbouring negative stereotypes. As a black woman, an African, an immigrant, the stereotypes that surround me are all negative and unfortunately when I encounter people like my co-worker I’m the one who has to educate them and let them know comments like the aforementioned ones are not okay. I am very lenient with people though otherwise I’d be reacting daily to the racial microaggresions I face.

  2. Perhaps if we are not so sensitive about these stereotypes they won’t be so bad, have you ever thought about that? Bottom line is blacks are in the west because whites went into Africa, and not only that they populated their culture. So whether we like it or not we black folks are white-ish in almost every way. We wear clothes that were invented by whites, the language we speak, English, French, Spanish or Latin is theirs, our believe in the existence of God, was made so by whites, I mean I can go on and on. We are white-ish and that is the truth, and I don’t see what we are mad about. As a fact I call us the adopted children of the White man, we are living the lives the ancestral whites introduced us to.

    1. Hi there! Thanks for your thoughtful comment, it definitely gave me some food for thought. Personally I started paying closer attention to the negative side of stereotypes when I became a mentor to some young ladies (ages 14-18) and through talking to them I realized they were often fearful of doing things because of how they would be perceived. I agree that we have all been influenced by white culture, I mean I spent my first decade of life in the UK and didn’t know anyone black outside of my family. I am of the opinion that all cultures can enrich us and we are fortunate to live in a time where that exposure is possible. However, from my experience, negative stereotypes on blackness prevail and even if I’m not being sensitive, the stereotypes people hold of me are likely to affect whether I get a job, an apartment etc, so I do feel the need to speak out. I wouldn’t say I was angry, just disappointed and trying to understand things and wanting to hear other people’s experiences and how we can ameliorate issues.
      Thanks for following my blog,mi followed you back. Looking forward to reading your posts:)

      1. Thanks for following back. I didn’t grow up in the west like you, I have only been in America for 8 years. That doesn’t mean that the white experience have evaded me since we were colonized by the British (Nigeria). I have seen and heard about the stereotypes but half of these are true about the black culture especially in America. The truth is if we don’t want to be viewed a certain way, then it’s up to us to change that. We can’t always blame the ignorant white man. He won’t change his ways, but we can change him through our behavior, whether white-ish or not. I don’t care if someone say I’m white-ish so long as I’m doing the right thing or being me. It’s all about how we view ourselves, something I call our world view. We need to stop buying into the stereotypes, and show the world through our acts that we are not all the same.

    2. I still feel ‘whitish’ and ‘blackish’ are crude and arbitrary signifiers. And I think using these terms in the way the dude mentioned above did is, well, ignorant. After all, this whole cultural cross-pollination thing goes both ways. Music is a perfect example. The origins of rock and roll etc. And not only that, it goes back so far that any notions of a people group being just one thing is always going to be inaccurate. Who in the US can call themselves American in the ethnic sense, for example. Most white Americans will be descendants of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Israel, Italy etc. Likewise in the UK most white Brits will be descended German, Scandinavian, French (saxon, viking, norman) etc. The reality is most of western civilisation is an immigrant concoction, including the white population, it’s actually what’s made it so rich and enterprising. I think when we get into corraling people into preconceived categories, each laden with expectations of one kind or another, we’re denying the truth and also, in a sense, what ought to be a basic human right – we’re trampling their personhood and dignity, seeing them more as an abstraction, a thing, than an actual living breathing human being. You are not someone’s predetermined idea of you, you are you. That’s the basis of every relationship you, I or anyone else ever has. Without that then what else is there?

      1. Well said indeed! One of the ladies who commented on this thread also brought up the point that we as black people have been influenced by Western culture. Cross-pollination of culture is definitely a wonderful thing. What I am always concerned about is how black culture is viewed. It is never seen as “refined”, the words to describe it can be problematic at times (“folk”, “rustic”, “traditional”, etc, giving us an image of an underdeveloped culture). And African-American culture is often defined using even more insulting terms. So that all leads people (like my coworker) to assume white= good, black = bad and of course that’s not how it is at all:)

  3. It’s not an appropriate topic for workplace conversation, and I think you took the correct action. That’s the kind of thing that makes for a hostile workplace. IMHO he was “acting ignorant.”

  4. I’ve not been told I’m whitish but I’ve certainly experienced that strange distance that occurs when you see yourself being viewed through another’s eye, an eye that was expecting the way you talk or behave to be quite different. It’s something I find both amusing and frustrating, but like you I think it basically comes down to laziness along with something else. A mild form of misanthropy that keeps a person from being truly interested enough in people to engage with them, rather than the myriad cultural stereotypes and labels they’ve come across – via TV or the media or whatever – that they think represent them. So yeah, I do think it takes a certain courage to be willing to resist the expectations that can sometimes (more often than I’d like) be seen in another’s gaze (an Emerson quote I’ve always especially liked for this reason – ‘to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment’). But the more people who do it, the better it is for everyone, the stereotypers included. And then maybe one day we’ll all learn to see the person standing in front of us when we say ‘hello’.

    1. “That strange distance that occurs when you are being viewed through another’s eyes.”- That is an amazing way of wording it! I do agree with you; often I am amused by people’s expectations of me based on my appearance but on a bad day like last week I am incredibly frustrated. I think it does come down to laziness as you said, and I guess when you look around at our microwave culture (everything must be done quickly and for our convenience) it’s not surprising that some people don’t take the time to really get to know the person.

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