Politics & Race
We Need To Talk About: Acting White

Every Thursday NegusWhoRead’s “We Need To Talk About…” column will explore a different issue

By Michael Harriot

If I were an academian, one of the mostly-white, new-millenium sideline-sitting bloviators intent on saving “people of color” now called “social justice warriors,” or was simply trying to impress people with my trove of politically correct vocabulary buzzwords, I’d use the term “Respectability Politics.”

Respectability Politics: When a marginalized group tries to police other members of their group to fit in with the mainstream in order to gain acceptance, alleviate unease or demonstrate  social value.

But let’s just call it what it is–acting white.

I don’t mean “acting white” in the way some Black people try to pat themselves on the back by telling uplifting stories about how they grew up in “the hood” and had to dodge the gang bangers, dope boys and no-good niggers who would attack them for getting good grades, avoiding trouble and staying on the straight and narrow. I believe the people who tell those stories are phonies. I grew up in a poor, violent, drug-infested area. I have tons of friends who extricated themselves (through athletic, academic and artistic achievement) from poor neighborhoods across the country, and they all tell the same story: The “hood” shielded them from harm and usually made sure they stayed on the path to their dreams. Those charlatans who tell the stories of thugs knocking books from their arms and demanding they “get in the streets” are mostly liars who lived in suburbs trying to fit themselves into the fairy tale of authentic blackness. Those people are shuckers and jivers. Those people are acting white.

Let’s be clear–Respectability Politics is a neoliberal euphemism. When anyone insinuates that a person should change their behavior to assimilate themselves into a dominant culture simply for the sake of acceptance–they are asking you to “act white.” At its essence, respectability is a subtle apology for who you are and where you came from. Respectability is bowing to white supremacy. Respectability is cowardice.

I appreciate the Black “respectability” backlash. It rests on the notion that Black people have no responsibility to alter themselves to make white people accept them or feel comfortable around them. In fact, I have always contended that the people who advocate respectability are not doing it to appease white people–they do it because they, themselves feel inadequate. They have allowed society to diminish their self esteem so low until they believe they have to reconfigure themselves into an unoffensive, milquetoast version of themselves to fit in. White people, for the most part, don’t care.

So what is acting “white?”

Acting White is the subtle bleaching of ourselves when we think it is appropriate. I am not immune. My neighbor has an outside speaker and blasts classic rock when he works in his yard. I turn my stereo down when I’m bumping Biggie as I pull into my driveway. We believe it makes white people comfortable and willing to accept us. Some of us do it in spurts–like emphasizing “r’s” and subconsciously turning down the bass in our voice when speaking to white people. Code-switching is a form of “respectability.” Suppressing emotion and sexuality is a form of respectability. It has even eased into the way we do our hair and how we dress. There is only one reason a woman would subject herself to the pain, time and financial burden of straightening her hair. It hurts. It takes a long time. It costs money. But it looks white.

I do not sag my pants. I don’t like the way it looks. But I also think the constant refrain of “pull your pants up” is a form of getting Black boys to act white. Despite the stupid internet meme that made nonthinking troglodytes believe that saggin came from “niggas” spelled backwards–at its core it is simply a style of dress!” I think it looks stupid in the same way I think country music-loving white boys who live in cities, drive BMW’s but wear chrome-tipped cowboy boots look stupid. I don’t believe it bears any more significance than when white girls dye their hair blonde and pierce their noses. It is ingrained in a hip hop culture the same way people who listen to heavy metal wear chains on their wallets.

I think the same of “talking proper.” There is a time for correct grammar, but there is a Black dialect that is cultural and significant. Speaking “ebonics” does not symbolize a lack of intelligence any more than it does when people from Boston describe something as “wicked” or when Minnesotans punctuate their sentences with “ehhh.” Black dialect is no different from a British accent, which is why I stopped code-switching. As a writer and editor, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people with impeccable speech, then read their writing and said to myself, “this motherfucker can barely read.” I believe you talk like the people around you, but you write like the books you’ve read. I talk Black. I write English.

I partly blame the popularity of respectability on the rise of the “New Nigga.” New Niggas believe “acting white” is the key to eliminating the problems of racism.  When talking about police brutality, hip hop legend The Rza recently ruffled feathers by saying when he sees “a young black youth—whether I watch them on TV, movies, or just see them hanging out—and they’re not looking properly dressed, properly refined, you know, carrying himself, conducting himself proper hours of the day—things that a man does—you’re going to have a certain fear and stereotype of them…”

We’ve all heard this New Nigga philosophy before. They believe Trayvon was killed because he wore a hoodie, or the think trigger-happy policemen are trolling neighborhoods shooting only the boys whose pants are a certain number of inches below their waists. They postulate that the lack of black women in corporate America somehow corresponds with natural hair or their level of bitterness. They conveniently forget Sandra Bland was dressed for a job interview when she was beaten. They overlook  or the guy in accounting who has a hissy fit when there is no toner in the copy machine or the caucasian supervisor who rose from the mail room to the front office who wears tattered jeans and the same wrinkled polo every day. White people have to be nice, and competent. Black people have to be nice, and competent. And dressed correctly. And talk correctly. And inoffensive. If not–we still aren’t victims of racism. It must be the shoes. It must be the black belligerence. It must be us.

The pressure to “act white” rarely comes from White people. It is symptomatic of the low self-esteem of Black people and a portion of the Black population who subscribe to the “if you can’t beat them…” philosophy. Acting white is like spending $200 on a pair of Jordans or wearing fake eyelashes–it makes you feel better but no one else cares. White people are like most people–if they like you, they like you. Racist white people won’t like you or feel any more comfortable around you if you talk differently or wear a belt. People who aren’t racist aren’t thinking “I really like the treble in his voice…” White people don’t give a fuck.

Whether we refer to it by its new name, or its old-school moniker, the politics of respectability and “acting white” are the same thing: appeasement. It is a faint rubber stamp to those who believe Blackness to be less than, or not equal to whiteness. Instead of feeding the beast and giving a thumbs-up to a system that seeks to marginalize and suppress people of color–give it the middle finger.

Act Black.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

Related Posts